By : Prof. Pradeep Mathur
NEW DELHI : West Bengal is just one of the four states (and a union territory) that will go to the polls in the next few weeks. In terms of population and land area West Bengal is neither the biggest nor the most industrialized and prosperous of the 28 states of India. For those of us who do not live in West Bengal, and 92 per cent of Indians do not live there, nothing will change whether Mamata Banerjee gets another term or not. Even if the BJP fails to unseat Mamata Banerjee the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi will remain firmly in the saddle. Then why we are so totally focused on West Bengal? Is there any valid reason for our obsession with West Bengal?
Yes there is a reason and the reason is valid. The electoral battle in West Bengal is special not only because we want to see the success or otherwise of BJP’s determined drive to unseat Mamata Banerjee; it is because, though unaware of the fact, West Bengal voters will vote not only for a political party but also for the pattern of future governance of the country. Their vote will decide whether in time to come the country will be ruled by a majoritarian philosophy or not.
We are a country of great diversities where people of different races, cultures, faiths, castes, and class live together. The cultural differences are so pronounced and dissimilarities in living styles and standards so great that an American writer once observed that in India 2,000 years of civilization can be seen in present time. The framers of our Constitution were people of great learning, vision and foresight. They had thorough understanding of our history and were mindful of the rich diversity of India. Since the partition of the country led to large scale violence and bloodshed and raised genuine fears about the unity of the country, they gave us a constitution which is federal as well as unitary. While preserving the integrity of the country it gives fullest freedom of creative expression to people all cultural streams.
This federal character of our set-up comes under threat whenever some ambitious and over assertive ruler comes to power in South Block. This is what happened in 1975 when an otherwise liberal–minded Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency rule at the behest of her son Sanjay and his friends; and this is what is happening now when there is no Emergency and no censorship. It is this federal aspect of our polity which the democratic liberal public opinion as well as Opposition parties feels under threat and want to save. When in her election campaign rallies Mamata Banerjee uses the term “Bahari Manush” (outsiders) she wants the masses to understand this majoritarian threat to their distinct cultural identity.
The elections in the coming weeks which are being dubbed as a trial match for the 2024 parliamentary elections, are taking place in four important states all of which are outside the cultural kingdom of BJP’s majoritarian philosophy. Essentially a product of Savarn Hindu Sanatanist culture of North India majoritarian view has been nurtured and converted into a political philosophy in Nagpur. This has been accepted by BJP as gospel truth and adopted as its war cry. This is the reason why BJP leaders and workers raise the cry of Jai Shri Ram in a land where Lord Ram is not the most worshipped god of Hindus. Kali Mata or Durga and not Bhagwan Ram and Hanuman are the favourite gods in Bengal. While taking a body for cremation Bengali Hindus say Hari Bol instead of Ram Nam Satya which is the practice in north India.
BJP’s problem is that it fails to appreciate any thing that does not conform to its prescription. Those who do not agree with its cultural prescription are termed as people of suspect loyalty and appeasers of minorities thus lacking commitment for the unity, integrity and well-being of the country.
It is this world view of the BJP which is facing its toughest challenge in West Bengal. Of the four states Tamil Nadu and Kerala are clearly out of the cultural orbit of BJP’s philosophy and BJP’s labored attempts to develop roots there have not been successful. Subjected to infiltration from Bangladesh on one side and cultural aggression from West Bengal and Tripura on the other, Assam remains constantly worried about preserving its exclusiveness and votes the party or coalition which can give a reassurance about its cultural identity. Therefore, the only state of interest remains West Bengal.
The electoral battle in West Bengal is essentially a clash of cultures. Bengalis as such are proud of their traditions and culture– language, food, music, literature and way of life. While BJP considers that regional cultures have no independent place and these can at best be local addition to a broad national cultural framework, leaders like Mamata Banerjee think this to be an attempt to encroach and subdue Bengali culture.
Even her worst critics concede that Mamata Banerjee is a fighter. She fought and succeeded in uprooting the well-entrenched Marxist rule in West Bengal. But this time she is fighting a different battle. Besides being a battle for political power this is a battle for cultural federalism as well. She has the support of the entire spectrum of liberal democratic opinion on her side. A lot many people who are extending support to her do not belong to Bengal. They are no great admirers of Mamata Banerjee either. But they feel it is their war as well. If she wins their beleaguered castles of culture and distinct identity will be safe and non-conformism will not be something to be scared of.
Also this battle in Bengal will decide if the BJP will take its majoritarian agenda forward or will do some rethinking about it. It is, therefore, natural that all those who believe in a plural India take a keen interest in West Bengal elections.
Prof Pradeep Mathur is a veteran journalist and media educator & Advisor cum Chief Consulting Editor of ICN Group.