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The West Bengal Story

The Caste Question in Lok Sabha Elections

Praskanva Sinharay (praskanva@gmail.com) is a doctoral scholar at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. 

 

The new politics of caste in West Bengal has the potential to dislodge the traditional bipolar political discourse in the state. While bhadrolok politics is still dominant, the question of caste is likely to play a crucial role in this election.

Introduction

The political scene of West Bengal, in the context of upcoming 16th Lok Sabha elections, seems to be quite unique. With the decline of the Left Front’s (LF) organisational strength and political appeal among the voters of the state; the present ruling party Trinamool Congress (TMC), which this time has not aligned with the Congress for the upcoming election, cannot also claim a monopoly over popular support. Moreover, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its strong development-oriented political campaign and smart selection of candidates in different seats has increasingly managed to secure a certain level of support among specific pockets of the voting population. Therefore, unlike the erstwhile bipolar nature of West Bengal’s election scene, the upcoming Lok Sabha polls cannot be simply looked at as a contest between two major camps; rather the other prominent political parties like Congress, BJP among others, quite evidently, shall play a crucial role in the deciding the results.

On the other hand, the collapse of the long-standing Left Front regime in 2011 signaled the crisis of what Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya has called “party-society”1 (Bhattacharyya: 2011). With the crisis of the party as the “chief mediator” in rural and semi-urban affairs, we have witnessed in the last couple of years, a host of community-based political assertions in the state politics (for example, the Matuas in the border districts, the Gorkhas in Darjeeling, the Rajbanshis and Adivasis in north Bengal, the Muslim minorities and so forth). Since the fate of the elections is largely determined by the rural voters, the political support of these communities, in terms of specific issues, shall definitely play a significant role in the elections this time.

This article aims to reflect on the uniqueness of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in the state, particularly focusing on the question of “caste” which is an emerging determinant category in the state election scene. In addition to that, I also wish to revisit my argument made earlier where I proposed that the organised politics of the Matuas – a minor sect of the Namasudras – under the banner of their community organisation Matua Mahasangha had introduced “a new politics of caste” in the state (Sinharay 2012: 26-27).

I have formerly argued that the emergence of Matua Mahasangha as the frontal organisation of the lower-caste Matua community since 2007-2008 with their specific demands regarding citizenship, caste-certificates among many others, however, had disturbed the urban, upper-caste bhadralok hegemony over local politics at a considerable level, as well as, had introduced a new politics of mediation in rural West Bengal (Sinharay: 2012, 2013).

This proposition met with many insightful responses from different scholars that were carried in previous issues of EPW (Chandra and Nielsen: 2012; Bandyopadhyay: 2012; Chatterjee: 2012; Samaddar: 2013).

Recent Developments

The politics of bargain, it seems, have been a mutually beneficial process for both the camps – the community-organisation and the party. The former gains its political salience in the institutionalised domain of state politics; whereas the latter, quite cunningly, aims to eventually integrate the former’s discrete politics within its influence. Such a phenomenon is evidently noticeable in case of the Matuas. Although the Mahasangha gained its prominence as the independent mouthpiece of the lower-caste refugees, and negotiated with all the political parties to meet their demands; its leadership eventually aligned with the TMC with the appointment of Manjul Krishna Thakur, the younger son of Baroma Binapani Devi, as the minister of state for refugee-relief and rehabilitation. For the next Lok Sabha elections too, the TMC has played the same card, and nominated the organisational head Kapil Krishna Thakur, the elder son of Baroma Binapani Devi, as its candidate from Bongaon constituency. Therefore, even though the Mahasangha gained prominence as an important political actor in state’s rural politics; its leadership, today, has been subsumed within the TMC’s party-influence. The BJP also adopted a similar political strategy this time by nominating a prominent Matua leader K D Biswas from the Bongaon constituency. It shall also play the Hindu card among the refugee population who had to cross the border due to communal tensions.

A crucial question arises at this point. Whether should we look at the integrationist attitude of the community-organisation and its leadership within the mainstream political parties as strategic moves of the time, or is that so that the bhadralok leadership has managed to reclaim their temporarily lost authority during the crisis phase over local politics? Although there cannot be any immediate answer to such a query, we can only identify three major trends in the present politics of the state vis-à-vis the marginal communities before the Lok Sabha elections.

One, we can see that the different communities choose to represent their political line of action from within the world of mainstream party-politics, and hence, there is subsumption of identities within the party-structures. After the dramatic victory in 2011 elections, the ruling party TMC has eventually strengthened its party-machinery and successfully increased its influence among the dalit and other marginal communities. We have already seen this in case of the Matuas. To take the example of another voluminous lower-caste community – the Rajbanshis, the TMC anchored to a politics of compensation, and met certain identitarian demands. For instance, the present government has established the Coochbehar Panchanan Burma University in 2012 to commemorate the great Rajbanshi leader. Therefore, all other political parties, in order to augment their influence over these marginalised communities, have adopted similar policies that sympathise, in some way or the other, with the different identitarian causes.

Two, although the discrete identities have been temporarily subsumed within the party banners, this does not mean that these local identities have lost their political charge. Rather, the opposite holds true. One of the recent newspaper reports, for example, on the pre-election political campaigns in Dooars (North Bengal) said, “Party banners are no longer the only identity of candidates in the fray. For instance, Manohar Tirkey of RSP, Dasarath Tirkey of Trinamool and BJP’s Birendra Bara are known by their Oraon origin. Joseph Munda of Congress has a protestant Christian lineage” (Roy: 2014). In other words, the party-identity of a candidate is no longer the only strong marker of her or his political credibility, rather the identity of the candidate as a “minority” has become crucial in support of the candidature. Therefore, such a political trend, on the one hand, challenges the erstwhile authority of the bhadralok-dominated party at the local level; whereas, on the other, it publicly champions the identitarian politics of the community in present-day rural West Bengal.

The Emergence of Dalit Voice

The third, and perhaps the most important development in contemporary state politics, is the emergence of autonomous dalit voice. Although the heterogeneous condition of the different lower-caste population groups in West Bengal did not allow a combined dalit movement, there had been certain “general slogans (of land and rural wages in particular)” that led to the formation of a “bahujan samaj” at different points of time (Samaddar 2013:79). The politics of the “bahujan samaj” had been manifested, as Ranabir Samaddar had noted, in the movements of Naxalbari, Lalgarh, and Jungle Mahals (Ibid). Interestingly, all three examples are instances of violent peasant resistance. I would like to add to the list another instance of armed peasant resistance – the Nandigram movement that had signaled the final crisis of party-society. The other instances of Lalgarh and Jungle Mahals followed thereafter. The policies of crass industrialisation through forcible land-grab endorsed by the LF led to the birth of voices of dissent from within the party. Moreover, the prolonged marginalisation of dalits and minorities within the party, and increasing elitism and bureaucracy led rebel CPI (M) leaders like Rezzak Mollah to come up with autonomous political formations like the recently formed “Social Justice Forum” before the Lok Sabha polls. To quote Rezzak Mollah:

The ascendency of Trinamool is…a result of the fact that the Left Front, which lips class struggle, has failed to implement it…

A piece of statistics says that 94% of the people here are from the deprived classes. If in West Bengal, the scheduled castes, tribes, minorities and backward classes were to unite, they would bring down their high caste rulers. It is ironical that Bengal always had either a Brahmin or a Baidya chief minister… (Times News Network: 2014)

The expelled leader has targeted the 2016 state assembly polls where he wants “a Dalit as Bengal CM with a Muslim as deputy” (Times News Network: 2014). The expulsion of Mollah before the Lok Sabha elections and his political initiatives to form another, if we can use the term, “bahujan samaj” shall, however, undoubtedly affect the upcoming polls.

Lastly, another important political formation before the elections is the Bahujan Mukti Party (BMP). The BMP, established in 2012, has already created a support base among the different lower-caste communities like the Namasudras, Poundras, Rajbanshis, Bauris, Mahatos, as well as among the Muslims. The party advocates for an agriculture-based economy and small scale industrialisation, and strongly opposes the liberalisation policies (like SEZ) of the central and state government. It demands decentralisation of political power, and proper implementation of reservations for the dalits and Muslims. Following the political line of Jogendranath Mandal, the BMP endorses Dalit-Muslim unity and political alliance of all marginal groups (published in their official mouthpiece Bahujan Mukti Barta, 27 September, 2013). Sukriti Ranjan Biswas, the state president of BMP told me over a telephonic interview, that they are contesting the elections for the first time, and are planning to field its candidates in almost 30 seats. Quite interestingly, as Sukriti Ranjan Biswas informed me, the party is getting the support of the former CPI(M) leader Rezzak Mollah who is attending BMP’s election campaigns in different parts of the state. The support of Rezzak Mollah shall surely facilitate the BMP’s fight in the upcoming elections.

Conclusion

The caste question in the Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, therefore, shall be of crucial importance. The political expressions and alliances of the leadership of different lower-caste groups before the polls had been quite different. Some chose to align with the bhadralok-dominated party to meet their demands, whereas others have opted for an autonomous political position. A quick look at the manifestos of all the political parties also informs us that the question of SC/ST, Muslims and other minorities are on the priority list of their political agenda in this election. Moreover, since the electoral fight is no longer bi-polar this time; all the players are eyeing the dalit and minority votes for their electoral success. At this juncture, one must not predict, rather wait and watch the dance of democracy.

Notes:

1.      “Party society…is the modular form of political society in West Bengal’s countryside”. For detailed discussion on party society, see Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya (2011):226-250.

2.      When the Matua Mahasangha held a conference on December 28, 2010 at Esplanade – the heart of Kolkata demanding the repeal of the Citizenship Amendment Act (2003) among many others, the dais was shared by top-notch leaders of all prominent political parties along with the Matua leadership. All the leaders unanimously extended support to their demands before the 2011 state assembly elections. (The Telegraph Special Correspondent: 2010).

References:

Bandyopadhyay, Sarbani (2012): “Caste and Politics in Bengal”, Economic and Political Weekly, 47(50): 71-73.

Bhattacharyya, Dwaipayan (2011): “Party Society, its Consolidation and Crisis: Understanding Political Change in Rural West Bengal” in Anjan Ghosh,Tapati Guha-Thakurta and Janaki Nair(ed.), Theorizing the Present: Essays for Partha Chatterjee (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp. 226-50.

Chandra, Uday and Kenneth Bo Nielsen (2012): “The Importance of Caste in Bengal”, Economic and Political Weekly, 47(44): 59-61

Chatterjee, Partha (1997): The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

 – (2012): “Historicising Caste in Bengal Politics”, Economic and Political Weekly, 47(50): 69-70.

Roy, Saugata (2014): “Identity politics holds key in Dooars”, The Times of India, 29 March, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/Identity-politics-holds-key-in-Dooars/articleshow/32871172.cms, accessed on 4 March 2014.

Sinharay, Praskanva (2012): “A New Politics of Caste”, Economic and Political Weekly, 47(34): 26-27.

– (2013): “Caste, Migration and Identity”, Seminar (645).

Special Correspondent (2010): “Vote game brings rivals to same dais”, The Telegraph, 29 December, available at http://www.telegraphindia.com/1101229/jsp/bengal/story_13364470.jsp, accessed on 4 April 2014.

Times News Network (2014): “Mollah floats 'social justice forum'”, The Times of India, 24 February, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/mollah-floats-social-justice-forum/articleshow/30920592.cms, accessed on 4 March 2014. 

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