West Bengal Assembly Elections 2021: Does a ‘Party Society’ Really Subsume the Politics of ‘Identity’ and ‘Development’?

While West Bengal’s “exceptionalism” is often touted to explain the claimed lack of communal and caste-based politics in the state, the rise of populist forces has somehow managed to take advantage of identitarian fault lines without creating space for democratic political mobilisation of marginalised sections.

Elections for 294 seats of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly are scheduled to be held between 27 March and 29 April 2021 in eight phases. 

The key political players in the upcoming elections include
(i) The All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its allies, including the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha;
(ii) The Sanyukta Morcha, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]), other parties comprising the Left Front, the Indian National Congress (Congress) and the Indian Secular Front (ISF);
(iii) The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies;
(iv) Unallied other parties including the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Lok Janshakti Party.

Like in the previous assembly elections in the state in 2016, the ruling TMC, led by current Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, faces challenges of anti-incumbency as well as dual ideological opposition from the left and the Congress on one side and the BJP’s Hindutva right on the other. Will Banerjee’s popularity see her through another successful electoral campaign or will BJP’s majoritarian rhetoric and strategy of inducting former TMC leaders win out? What will the impact of the “alternative” alliance between the CPI(M)-led Left parties, the Congress and Abbas Siddiqui’s ISF be? And will Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM be able to play a key role in determining the political outcome, like it did in the 2020 Bihar assembly elections?

While the electoral prospects of the various parties contesting the West Bengal elections will be known only after the counting of votes and announcement of results on 2 May 2021, this reading list attempts to analyse the key themes that are likely to play out in the voting choices in the state. 

Primacy of Local Political Organisation?

Unlike other states in India, where factors of caste, religion and ethnicity have been analysed as determining the “vote banks” of political parties, West Bengal has a unique history of affiliation to political parties and polarisation along party lines. Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya explained this as a “party society.” In 2021, he wrote:

In the long rule of the left, a combination of centralised organisation and decentralised governance turned the state’s political field into what I called ‘‘party society.’’ Party kora or ‘‘doing the party’’ is a peculiar Bangla expression; it once referred to Communist Party of India (Marxist)—(CPI[M])—cadres, now it refers to the TMC workers. West Bengal politics generally spins not on caste, religious or ethnic associations, but on their absorption within this or that political party. 

Subhasish Ray (2017) described the extraordinarily dense party organisation of the CPI(M), which penetrated into each and every aspect of life in rural West Bengal (where a majority of the state lives) as the “core instrument” of the party’s hegemony. Since the time of the long-running Left regime in the state, the party’s organisation was known to mediate interactions between the state and the public, such as in the delivery of public services. Referencing Bhattacharyya, Suman Nath (2018) noted the evolution of the party society:

Bhattacharyya (2010: 53) notes that the evolution of such party society germinated from the “violent class-based movements of the poor peasants as they fought against the domination of the landlords ... These movements—facilitated by the left parties—for food, land, security of tenure, and freedom for ‘the intrusion of the excluded.’” Eventually, the domination adopts what Ruud (2003) notes as a form of “symbolic capital” in Bourdieu’s sense of the term. Bhattacharyya (2010: 55) further argues that “this enabled the communities to use political parties as conduits to pose their demands to the institutions of government, and allowed the party, in return, to transfer policies to the society by dissemination within the communities.” 

He went on to highlight the extensive role played by the Left’s political organisation when it was in power:

Bhattacharyya (2016: 126) also notes several unique characteristics of politics in West Bengal such as the (i) absence of “other channels of public transactions,” (ii) lack of political focus on caste, religion or ethnicity-based social divisions, (iii) partisan forms of conflicts, (iv) accepted position of party as “moral guardians” of social life, and (v) party’s exclusive control over the panchayat system.

In the context of TMC’s rise to power and its defeat of the long-running Left government in 2011, Nath (2017) contended that “party-based and organisation-dependent delivery system promoted by the Left Front” had been supplanted by a service delivery model mediated by powerful local leaders and corruption. He explained

The political mediation through different hierarchies—booth committee, branch committee, local committee, and finally, district committee—through which decisions were made used to be well organised, but simultaneously time-consuming. “For getting certain things done, CPM took months … they had their political hierarchy and protocol to follow, TMC did not have much protocol to follow … as a person you need to know whom to ask for what and you must be willing to pay a certain amount” (One of the villagers in Bankura, field notes, January 2015). This notion has been popularised by the TMC as opposed to the CPI(M) in each of the gram panchayats I studied. 

While Nath interpreted this mediation by “strong leaders with local networks and command over local administration” as an “alternative to ‘party society,’” Bhattacharyya (2021) viewed the new affiliations of the public to local TMC leaders as an extension of “party society” itself, with allegiances continuing to forged along party lines. 

Though TMC has no organisation that matches what the CPI(M) once had, Mamata has given a relatively free hand to local satraps to run the party in lieu of absolute loyalty to her leadership.

Therefore, despite the vote share of the BJP having increased to 40.23% with 18 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the state as compared to 17.02% with two seats in 2014, Bhattacharyya held that electoral outcomes at the central level are likely to be a poor indicator of those at the state level: 

While the local elections in West Bengal are the best barometers indicating changes in party society (panchayat election in 2008 signalled Mamata’s rise), parliamentary elections are the least resonant of the state’s deep social politics. Consequently, the logic of voting for Parliament and for assembly are incongruous in West Bengal, and the former is the least reflective of who controls political power in local society.

In this light, will the BJP’s rhetoric of a “double-engine sarkar” (meaning a BJP-led government at both the centre and the state) to bring about development in the state hold sway with voters?

Communal Polarisation and Caste-based Assertion

While Bhattacharyya has argued for the primacy of “party society” in West Bengal’s political landscape, the electoral significance of other identities—based on religion, caste and ethnicity—cannot be discounted.

Rajat Roy (2017) wrote:

Muslim population in Bengal is around 28%, and that of Scheduled Castes is around 23%, a majority of them peasants. These peasants successfully resisted the erstwhile Left Front government’s bid for land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram, thus paving the way for the TMC coming to power. After coming to power, the Mamata government took some steps to bring benefits to these socio-religious sections of the society.

The BJP’s Hindutva campaign has continually attacked the Banerjee government’s pro-Muslim measures as “blatant appeasement of Muslims.” Roy contended that the sociopolitical space for the Hindutva right was created by the decline of the left. He explained

It is true that ever since partition, the politics of the left and the left-of-centre dominated the political scene in Bengal, and the politics of the Hindu rights never got many takers. However, the decline of the left and Congress in the state has created a void. Instead, caste and community-based identity politics have started raising their heads. Because of a history of partition, West Bengal had a sizeable number of Hindus who had come from the eastern part of undivided Bengal. While the middle class had resettled themselves in Kolkata and other urban areas, the lower class, mostly peasantry and artisans, were settled in rural areas, many in the districts bordering Bangladesh. The loss of livelihood, coupled with the lack of proper rehabilitation programme taken up by the government made them angry and frustrated.
The refugee movement was co-opted by the left and they gave vent to their anger by supporting the left in successive elections. With the passage of time, the refugee movement lost its steam, yet the sense of loss for their lost home and livelihood remained strongly in their mind. The bitter memory of partition had left an indelible mark in their minds that made them hostile to Muslims when fomented by communal politics. The refugees’ disenchantment with the left grew as they got little succour even after the left came to rule the state for more than three decades.

In the 1990s, at the advent of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the BJP saw its vote share increase (in Lok Sabha constituencies) in border districts, where the refugee voters are a dominant force, wrote Roy.

Since then, the acceptability of Hindu right politics has only widened.

Even people known to be leftists are seen to be abandoning their ideology to join the BJP. The left and the Congress are hopelessly outmanoeuvred by the communal and religion-centric politics. Unlike in the past, when they used to take a bold anti-communal stance in times of communal strife, they now prefer to remain silent, leaving the ground to communal forces.

Jyotiprasad Chatterjee and Suprio Basu (2019) analysed that the over 23% increase in BJP’s vote share during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as compared to 2014 was accompanied by a fall in the vote share of left parties, particularly the CPI(M) to the tune of 22%. They observed:

The visible decline of the secular forces like the left and the INC and the rise of the BJP with its much publicised Hindutva agenda, coupled with the apparent Muslim appeasement by the ruling AITC, leads one to ponder over the nature of the evolving electoral polarisation. The fundamental question is how far the perceived communal electoral polarisation can be regarded to be a reflection of a similar social cleavage. Conversely, one may question the possible influence of such electoral polarisation in shaping and reshaping the contour of political culture, to create communal fault lines at the level of society and social institutions.

One example of how such reshaping of the political culture may be underway, was provided by Roy, who highlighted the example of Ram Navami celebrations in the state.

Mamata publicly attacked the BJP for trying to appropriate Ram Navami and position themselves as the sole custodian of the Hindu religion. Taking a cue from her, the TMC leaders tried to position their party as the real Ram bhakts without questioning the political motive of the BJP behind these initiatives. 

In another example, referring to Banerjee’s state-wide campaign in the Durga Puja season in 2018, during which Muslim participation in the celebrations was publicised to showcase a non-BJP-style Hinduism, Malini Bhattacharya (2019) observed:

It appears that far from achieving “a new com­munity of the people,” this festival populism has increased communal tensions to a point not experienced in the state in the last few decades, sometimes bursting into ugly incidents in which ordinary people have been killed or harmed. In fact, when both the Bharatiya Janata Party and TMC followers take out armed rallies with rival claims of “Hindutva” on the occasion of Ram Navami, and Muslim leaders seek political patronage for Muharram celebrations because they feel they cannot lag behind, such divisive anxieties signify not the well-being of “plurality,” but its erosion. 

While these examples are reflective of growing sociopolitical fissures along communal lines in West Bengal, to what extent has the Hindutva narrative propelled the BJP in the electoral inroads that it has made in the state? Unlike Roy (2017), and Chatterjee and Basu (2019) argued that “the long history of the secular Bengali public sphere” was “a definite obstacle to communal polarisation of the society and politics in West Bengal,” citing findings from the National Election Study (NES), 2019.

During the course of the survey in West Bengal, when the sampled voters were asked to rate the nationalist orientation of the Muslim comunity, a little over one in every 10 reported the community to be non-nationalist. Compared against the all-India figure of about one-fourth, this is indeed a secular expression. This also finds support in the opinion of the electorates about the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The NES 2019 data set reflects that more than half the respondents in West Bengal, who have heard about the dispute, consider it to be unjustified. Strikingly, among those who have voted for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, close to six of every 10 hold this view. Moreover, from the fact that over nine of every 10 respondents considered it important for the Prime Minister of India to be inclusive and secular, their overall secular orientation becomes prominent.
The NES 2019 data set indicate that more than communal polarisation, the voters are politically polarised between the AITC and the BJP, since a majority of them have decided whom to vote for during the campaign period itself. 

Like with communal polarisation and religious identities, claims of West Bengal’s “exceptionalism” when it comes to caste-centric politics abound. But is there merit to such claims? Sandip Mondal (2021) put such claims in perspective:

“Bengalis have no understanding of caste,” Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd once said in an interview in Kolkata (Bhattacharya 2018). Although caste has an important role in the social and political domain of West Bengal, the Bengali bhadralok does not seem to have any ­understanding of the role of caste. Apart from Shepherd, several other scholars have also doubted the dominant narrative of the absence of caste in West Bengal’s politics ... One of the popular discourses among the elite Bengali bhadralok is that West Bengal is “casteless” and “exceptional” compared to other states. This sense of uniqueness and ­departure from the rest of India forms one of the features of the Bengali identity. It is not considered civil to bring up issues related to caste in polite urban conversation as these discussions seem provocative and rude for the gentle casteless society (Chatterjee 2015).
In West Bengal, Dalits comprise 23.51% of the total population, the third highest Dalit population among Indian states. As much as 10.66% of the entire Dalit population of India lives in West Bengal, the second highest on a pan-­India level. Despite one of the largest Dalit populations in India and a significant experience of Dalit mobilisation in the late colonial period (Sen 2018: 22), caste was never a determinant political category in the electoral realm. None of the major political parties championed the cause of any caste groups (Chandra et al 2015), and caste was never an electoral issue for the two dominant political parties, the Congress and the Left Front (Chatterjee 2012).

Why? Mondal explained

Dalit assertion against caste discrimination started from the 1870s and was spearheaded by two distinct caste groups, the Rajbanshis of North Bengal and Namasudra of erstwhile East Bengal (Bandyopadhyay 2009). But this organised Dalit movement was ruptured by the physical dispersal and displacement of a large section of SCs due to the traumatic event of the partition (Bandyopadhyay and Ray Chaudhury 2014; Chatterjee 2015). After partition, it was difficult to organise them as their estrangement from their familiar physical space led to the gradual decline of their consolidated mass base. The removal of principal political challenges through partition was a remarkable accomplishment of the upper castes, which helped them consolidate their hegemony (Chatterjee 2012). As the struggle for resettlement and rehabilitation after partition were also mobilised by the urban upper-caste leaders of the communist parties, they channelised Dalit grievances into class inequalities (Chatterjee 2012). Even the vocabulary of caste was deliberately purged from the discourse of movements for the greater interest of united struggle (Bandyopadhyay and Ray Chaudhury 2017). After partition, the question of caste was subsumed under “partition victim” or “refugees,” which were more easily absorbed into the left-liberal ideologies under the dominant discourse of class.

Even the Namasudra and Raj­banshi communities—not necessarily representative of the collective voice of ­Dalits in West Bengal—have limited capacity to challenge the mainstream politics of West Bengal hegemonised by the upper castes. 

This near invisibility of the politicisation of caste is due to a combination of factors—namely the discontinuity of the Dalit movement in post-independence West Bengal due to partition, the class politics esp­oused by the left movement and the ­inadequate address of caste issue by the long-term left regime, dismantling of other social institutions by the penetration of “party society” at the grassroots level, and the failure of forging a broader Dalit solidarity due to fragmented Dalit constituencies.

Taking forward a discussion in the pages of EPW in 2012 regarding the caste politics in West Bengal, Ranabir Samaddar (2013) wrote:

It may well be that rather than denying the exceptionality of West Bengal (and trying to prove that it is all the same as elsewhere), a probe into the exceptionality may lead us to more insights as to how the ethics of justice and community has worked in West Bengal’s contemporary history.

According to Mondal, the autonomous political existence of Dalits in West Bengal has been prevented by the hegemony of the upper-caste bhadralok. But that does not mean that the caste question is in decline in West Bengal. 

[W]ith the decline of the Left Front government and the inauguration of the Trinamool Congress-led state government in 2011, many people hoped that identity politics would emerge as the marker of local social institutions, away from the regressive “party society” of the left regime (Guha 2019). It was expected that Mamata Banerjee’s overt patronisation of caste and communal sentiment and her “post Bhadralok” style of politics would open up a new space for identity politics. But, there was no fundamental change in the political configuration of post-left West Bengal as it adopted the Left Front model of politics where party machinery dominates the functioning of social institutions. Once again, caste-based identity politics, while resurgent, lost its hope for an autonomous existence in the political terrain of West Bengal.

Despite noting the revival of the political assertion of the Matua Mahasangha over the issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in 2018 and the subsequent announcement of development measures for the Matua community by the TMC government, Ayan Guha (2019) expressed hope for a second wave of Dalit upsurge in West Bengal, but concluded that it was premature to pass verdict on the future trajectory of Dalit politics in the state: 

A negligible percentage of SC candidates of the three major political parties of the state have contested from general seats. All of this reflects that a caste-based social engineering strategy is still not a political reality in West Bengal.
Thus, since 2008–09 when the organised left in West Bengal started to decline, there has not been any escalation in the political representation of the lower castes. It is imperative to see whether, in the near future, the current sporadic activism of the Matuas translates into increased political representation of the lower castes in West Bengal. 

Acknowledging the growing role of religious/caste identities in West Bengal politics, Bhattacharyya commented on the prospects for the 2021 elections:

By pushing its rhetoric of ‘‘minority appeasement,’’ the BJP hopes to maximise support in 70% Hindu voters. In 2019, it tasted success in drawing Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Class votes, winning five of the eight seats in Purulia, West Midnapore, Jhargram, Bankura and Birbhum. The party has now gone into overdrive, with its meticulous caste and tribal messaging to win most of the 84 reserved seats.

‘Development’ Perceptions and Populism

While party affiliations and identity-based political positions of voters are likely to have an impact on electoral outcomes, are voters swayed by a “development” agenda?

Referring to BJP’s electoral successes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Chatterjee and Basu (2019) wrote:

The electorate of West Bengal seems to have responded positively to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) call of “real poribarton” (change) displaying scepticism over the All India Trinamool Congress’s (AITC) much fancied narrative of poribarton.

They elaborated upon the campaigning at play:

Through his 17 public meetings in West Bengal, Modi relentlessly tried to break the hegemony of the AITC by showcasing the developmental achievements of the BJP-led central government vis-à-vis the failures of the state government on these issues. Modi even termed Banerjee as the speedbreaker in Bengal’s development. 

On the other hand, Bhattacharyya (2021) noted the development-related achievements of Banerjee and TMC, as well:

[S]he delivered some tangible signs of “development,” such as pucca roads in remote hamlets or women’s empowerment through her flagship policies Kanyashree and Sabujsathee. Of late, her Duare Sarkar (government at the door), Swasthasathi (family health cover for `5 lakh) and Didi Ke Bolo (talk to didi) have generated quiet ripples.

But who is such claimed “development” for? Analysing the TMC’s victory in the West Bengal assembly elections 2016 in light of the previous Left regime’s turn towards an increasingly neo-liberal conception of development, Samaddar (2016) observed:

On one hand, the ruling party, the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) claimed that it developed West Bengal, but avoided any call to the lower classes to defend the government, scared of the powerful forces in society. The TMC seemed reluctant to raise the focal point, namely, development for whom, and spell out why its developmental policy marked a departure from the neo-liberal developmental policy of the previous regime. On the other hand, the left–liberal—Congress–Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI(M))—combine attempted a restoration of power lost in the elections of 2011, avoiding any politics, any references to classes, divisions, and programmes.

Critiquing Samaddar’s characterisation of TMC’s developmental model, Nemai Karan (2017) explained:

The poor needs development,” no doubt, is a robust proposition; but to cater to the need of development, “a highly centralised administration” has been installed under Mamata Banerjee’s dispensation. Bureaucracy is empowered and asked to deliver results. The outcome is excellent, a sort of euphoric reaction to the results. But it is not “development” proper, it only ensures supply of some goods and services to people, a programme followed by many state governments in India. Banerjee’s government is by no means an exception in this regard.
The inherent weakness of such a development model is that it does not empower people, as what they get are not right-based. This is not participatory development and as such, the results of following such a model are twofold: first, people become passive recipients and dependent beneficiaries, and second, they do not become independent of their own circumstances.

Therefore, Karan argued that the model of development envisaged under populism is limited. “It never elevates people to a new height of consciousness which is free from the shackles of compulsions of a class-divided society.”

Buttressing such an analysis of the limits of populism is Nath’s explanation for the “acceptance” of corruption in the everyday life and politics of the West Bengal public. 

[T]here is a deliberate attempt to free people from the strict party grid and to make them depend on one or two relatively powerful local leaders. Although, in one sense it is an accumulation of power by a handful of people, it has accelerated the process of service delivery ... in contrast to CPI(M)-led Left Front organisation-based operations, TMC could deliver things to the people relatively quickly, often through a corrupt form of exchange. Yet, because of the speedy and assured delivery of services, a large section of people approve of this mechanism.

In other words,

The state will experience rapid delivery of quick and relatively easy to implement initiatives followed by centralised accumulation of power which is in complete contrast to community-driven endeavours.

Nath concluded that with increasing populist polarisation, policy and corruption issues are increasingly disappearing from public debate.

Read More

Communalisation of Politics in West Bengal: Religion and the Public Sphere | Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, 2018

Is Caste Relevant in West Bengal Politics Now? | EPW Engage, 2018

Of Control and Factions: The Changing 'Party-Society' in Rural West Bengal | Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, 2009

Poll Perceptions and Strategies in West Bengal | Pratick Mallick, 2019

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