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Home / Opinion / Columns /  A high-octane election that’s sure to change West Bengal

I am writing this column on the day of polling at Nandigram, where West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is possibly facing the electoral fight of her life, against her former local strongman Suvendu Adhikari. The security bandobast or set-up is unprecedented: 22 companies of central paramilitary forces (eight men per polling booth), voting being webcast from 75% of the polling booths, land and river borders to the constituency sealed off.

From Day One, the campaigning in West Bengal—it continues, as the last polling date is 29 April—has been fierce, bitter and abusive. But more than anything else, this state assembly election is—or has been turned into—one about the identity of Bengal.

Banerjee has harped on being “Banglar meye (Bengal’s daughter)", the threat of “bohiragatos (outsiders)", the politicians she likes to refer to as “Gujarati goons (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s top two central leaders)", and the “un-Bengaliness" of the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’. The Left has the viral music video “Nijeder mawte, nijeder gaan (Our song, in our own way)," in which a dozen luminaries from the Bengali film, theatre and music industries assert, without naming the BJP, that Bengal will not accept hatred, fascism and so on (https://bit.ly/3cGqy6c). The BJP’s plank has been that it’s high time West Bengal joined the national mainstream in socio-economic development after nearly half a century of Left Front and Trinamool Congress (TMC) rule.

Exceptionalism is perhaps the most deeply rooted idea in the Bengali psyche. Bangla is the only Indian language that has a word for ‘the other’—‘obangali’ (non-Bengali). Bengalis know that their state has produced the largest number of Nobel laureates (including Ronald Ross and C.V. Raman who did their prize-winning research in Calcutta) and believe that the Bengali people are more cultured and advanced than any other. And that ever since Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, admitted that what Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow, the rest of India—especially whoever is in power in Delhi—has been out to deprive and insult them.

But Bengali pride should—and will—triumph over petty considerations of money (‘hather moila’, dirt on one’s hand, in a popular Bengali idiom) and all that. Because we Bengalis believe—no, we know that the Bengali intellect is, well, superior. Hindi speakers, let’s not compare, and don’t those people south of the Vindhyas put tamarind in everything they cook? And all of them part of a giant conspiracy to undermine Bengalis. But we carry on unbowed. We shall overcome, in our own way.

In the last few weeks, I have spoken to some Kolkata friends. For several of them, the principal concern was “the crisis in secularism", “toxic nationalism" and the consequent threat to Bengali culture and ethos. But a schoolteacher friend said: “I find it funny that the parents of most of the children I teach have been voting for the ruling parties in the state, yet they want their kids to get out of West Bengal for higher studies as soon they are out of school. I question them about this contradiction, and haven’t yet received a convincing reply." He also pointed me to census figures. Kolkata’s population is ageing faster than that of other Indian metros (https://bit.ly/3sKt4hk), indicating a flight of the young en masse from West Bengal, and if this trend continues, the city faces the prospect of becoming something of a vast old-age home.

Yet, the socio-political discourse in West Bengal seems to have changed significantly over the past few years.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, for example, issues like ‘tolabaaji’ (extortion) by TMC politicians and cadre came out in the open. Reacting to her party’s setback—the TMC’s seat count in the House fell from 34 to 22, out of the state’s total of 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, Banerjee publicly asked her people to return “cut money" to victims. Political violence—widespread but little-reported in the mainstream media—also came into focus.

As for bohiragatos or outsiders, anyone walking down a road in many parts of Kolkata today is likely to hear Hindi more than Bengali being spoken. Over the decades, there has been a vast influx of migrants from the Hindi belt. Banerjee’s own old assembly constituency, Bhabanipur, may have become Bengali-minority. Major trade and commerce, from Burrabazar in Kolkata—one of the largest wholesale markets in Asia—to Siliguri, the entry point to the North East, is controlled by Marwari businesses. A large chunk of small and micro enterprises, from commercial vehicle operators and grocery shops to paan-bidi vends, is now ‘outsider’-owned.

Most large real estate developers are not of Bengali origin. Nor is most of the young crowd at posh Kolkata nightclubs. Almost all Bangla films—mainstream and arthouse—are produced by non-Bengalis these days. Much of the commercial investment in West Bengal over the past three decades has been by ‘outsiders’ who consider the state their home. So, who exactly is bohiragato?

This state election will be some sort of a watershed, because it has thrown up crucial unavoidable questions about how Bengalis and the people of Bengal see themselves, right now. Whoever wins, ‘poriborton’ or change, is inevitable. Banerjee too, if she stays on, will not be the same, nor will many of her policies and positions. Whatever happens, one hopes that Bengal wins.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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