West Bengal: A shift from Party Society to Identity Based Society

Anindya Sengupta

“Dada ami CPM.. Aaapni ki? Congress ( ba TMC)? ” This had been a very common question in Bengal for almost four five decades. People recognised themselves with their support of any particular political party. The allegiance to a party was not dependent completely on the social identity of the person ( caste, religion, gender). While the people from minority community in parts of Malda and Murshirdabad supported Congress mainly, in parts of South Bengal like North and South 24 pargans the minorities supported CPM mostly. There was no in block support of a community or social group to one political party. Even within the same family there were two siblings/cousins supporting two different political parties. So social identities did not take a centerstage in West Bengal politics.

Does this mean that social identity did not matter at all in a Bengali society? The answer is no. While compared to many other parts of the country the social divisions at least seems to be less in West Bengal, but it is definitely there. There has been ghettoization of the minority community which is not only evident in Kolkata but also in remote village areas. In Kolkata, Park Circus, Rajabajar and Khidirpur areas have been the areas with prevalence of minority community. In remote areas like Nandigram also there are two blocks with one block showing prevalence of minority community.

Not only religious ghettoization, there are small localities all across Bengal which are named after some caste and community highlighting there has been some historical ghettoization of communities in the name of caste. There are Biswas para, Telipara, Naskar para, Sapuipara, Baidyapara all across the state. Also while there are some instances of inter caste marriages, there are very few instances of inter religion marriages. The marriage ads in leading bengali newspaper are evidences of the prevailing caste system within the society. The party society just acted as a carpet over the existing social differences.

Bengal had witnessed partition of the country for which huge section of Bengalis had to migrate from erstwhile East Bengal from 1947 onwards. This migration continued for decades. A sizeable migration happened during 1971. The refugees faced huge economic hardships and their economic hardship took the centerstage of West Bengal politics. So the political discourse focused on the economic impact of the partition and hence inspite of such difficult partition, communal politics did not take the centerstage.

Focus on economic issues prevented identity politics to dominate the political discourse of Bengal for decades. But it is the same economic issue that lead to end of that culture. The land policy of the left front government was adopted in Singur in 2006. Agricultural lands were taken from farmers for development of a Motor car factory. As per as the land policy the farmers who were giving up their land were supposed to be compensated and also some of them were supposed to be trained to work on the factory. Over 85% of the landowners agreed to give away their land and take the compensation.

What the land policy missed is the huge section of agricultural labours who did not owned the land but their livelihood depend upon farming on the agricultural land. Now vast majority of these agricultural labours came from the minority religious community and the scheduled caste community. They were not given any compensation nor there was any concrete plan for them. The then opposition party focused on this extensively that the then government acted against the interest of poor agricultural labours who came from certain religion and certain caste.

Over and above there came the Sachar commission report which suggested that the economic condition of the minority religious community was bad across the state. Also the left leadership continued to remain dominated by the upper caste, hindu males with very minimum presence from the religious minorities or scheduled caste and tribes or women.

Both of these lead to a consolidation of support of certain community for the opposition and led to the end of thirty four years of left rule in Bengal. With the new government in the helm of power, considerable focus was not given on the economic upliftment of these communities. Instead dole politics was adopted. The religious leaders of the minority community were given monthly doles.

The family of boroma, Matua leader and a prominent figure in the scheduled caste community were given candidature for assembly and parliamentary elections. Suddenly religion and caste became a major issue in Bengal politics.

Over the years this has grown. Priests and religious leaders from different religious communities are given monthly doles. Clubs are given money to organize religious events. There has been many religious issues that became the major reason of debate between the ruling and the opposition party ( Ram Navami and Hanuman Jaynti, Durga Puja Bisarjan and Muharram and so on). One religious slogan of one opposition party became a big point of contention between the ruling party and this opposition party.

When the chief minister stops her car to confront with people uttering a particular religious slogan, it brings religion to the center stage of politics. This is exactly what happened. It should be noted out here that there has been significant growth of certain organisations known for their religious belief during the present regime.

Both SC community and religious minority community were backward in terms of economic aspect. Along with that majority of SC community were historically affected by partition. The opposition party encashed both and played the religious card of partition politics ( the left had played the economic card earlier in the 60s and 70s).

But it is always difficult for the “bhodro somaj” of Bengal to accept that religion and caste are dominating their voting pattern. So now they have got a masquerade of need of a double engine government or same government in center and state for the “development” of the state. Although the real factor dominating the voting pattern is the communal and caste based hatred.

Image from https://www.rosl.org.uk/rosl_news/967-the-age-of-identity-politics

During this time there has been some amount of decline in the economic growth of West Bengal as compared to the previous regimes last 6 years. The average year on year SDP growth has been 14% in the previous regime which became 12% during this regime ( The base changed in between from 2004/05 to 2011/12). The average growth of number of factories declined from 5% in the left regime( last 6 years) to 2% in the present regime ( first 6 years). Also the average growth of invested capital declined from 17% in the left regime( last 6 years ) to 7.6% in the present regime ( first 6 years).

In terms of Human development also it can be seen that while the infant mortality rate declined by 37% between 2002 to 2010, the same declined by 29% between 2011 to 2017. The maternal mortality declined by 17% between 2005 to 2010 and the same declined by 16% between 2011 to 2017. Also the increase in girl marriage age increased by 3.6% between 2003 to 2011 while the same increased by 3% during 2011 to 2018. So both in terms of economic and human development indices, the present regime lagged behind the earlier regime.

Now whether this decline in development lead to the surge of identity based politics in Bengal is debatable but one must say that even during the run up of the assembly elections the way “chondipat” or going to the Matua mandir in Bangladesh became a central point of the campaign, identity politics has become an integral part of Bengal politics. No matter what the outcome of the ongoing election be, the structure of Bengal politics has been fundamentally altered for ever.

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