West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee Image Credit: PTI

In the poll-bound Indian state of West Bengal, the political point-counterpoint has reached such a fever pitch that the din is often far less about propriety and a lot more about swagger and brinkmanship. But what is fast emerging as an even more disturbing phenomenon of a rather pedestrian political culture is an overt and to a large extent shameless attempt at promoting a sentiment that is heavily laced with subnationalism.

And quite ironically, it is the emergence of a political party with a staunch nationalist agenda in Bengal politics that has stoked the embers of subnationalism for the first time in the last four decades.

‘Us-and-them’ diatribe

Since independence and until 1977, barring a few miscarriages in the form of a United Front government, Congress ruled the roost in Bengal. It was towards the end of Congress reign and thereafter when the Left Front, under the leadership of Jyoti Basu and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — or the CPM — came to power, that a very carefully-crafted rhetoric was infused in Bengal’s socio-cultural identity.

This rhetoric was primarily based on an ‘us-and-them’ diatribe that sought to replace any real debate or dialogue on the state’s socio-economic indices with a customary high-octane social, vocal and ideological onslaught based on ‘a step-motherly Centre’s injustice to Bengal’.

The Congress-led federal government’s indifference towards some of Bengal’s legitimate demands only helped add more fuel to this ‘us-and-them’ fire.

Blood donation for Bakreshwar power plant

One particular incident during the late 1980s bears a significant resonance of the socio-political milieu of the times, when the ruling CPM’s youth and student brigades conducted a voluntary blood donation drive all over Bengal to raise the pitch for building a thermal power plant in Bakreshwar, near Kolkata.

Hundreds of litres of excess blood collected as part of that campaign were literally dumped in the sewerage lines because the state’s blood banks did not have the necessary infrastructure to handle such a voluminous inventory! Without getting into debating the efficacy of a campaign that was all-sentiments and little-substance, one can still say that the blood donation drive had served a very important socio-political purpose: Stoking the fire of subnationalism in Bengal by encouraging a mindset within a sizeable section of Bengal’s youth and the intelligentsia as well that no matter the Centre’s neglect, ‘we will build Bakreshwar with our blood’.

Throughout Left Rule in Bengal, the idea to project the Congress as a toxic socio-cultural and economic influence on Bengal’s finer sensitivities gained ground at multiple levels – including academics. The Left parties in Bengal, particularly CPM, tried their best to paint “Delhi” as the nucleus of a marauder acting against Bengal’s perceived intellectual and cultural superiority.

And to a very large extent the ploy worked. Since its defeat in the 1977 state elections, Congress never again managed to win a majority in West Bengal.

BJP’s rise in Bengal

Interestingly, after 42 years — that is since the Congress defeat in 1977 — in the 2019 national elections, Bengal for the first time saw a strong nationalist party, namely Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), winning a stunning 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

With a strong cadre-based, regimented national party like BJP now having West Bengal very definitively on its radar, ruling Trinamool Congress and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee have once again forced Bengal into a subnational ‘us-and-them’, ‘insider-outsider’, ‘Bengali-non-Bengali’ debate.

Just like the way the Left had very successfully projected the Congress as a dehumanising onslaught on an archetypal Bengali ‘Bhadralok’s (gentleman) socio-cultural sensitivities; just like the way CPM and its allies in the Left Front had virtually militarised the notion of keeping Bengal cocooned from any Northern ‘disturbance’ (remember the blood donation for Bakreshwar!), similarly the current TMC leadership in Bengal is increasingly falling prey to a subnationalist election rhetoric to desperately placate the majority Bengali vote in the state in a bid to keep “outsider” BJP at bay.

Understanding subnationalism

No doubt subnationalism can bear dividends in a huge country like India, with such a diverse mosaic of cultural, social and economic identities. It can help a state or region promote its own social, economic and intellectual brand equity and thereby increase its bargaining power for a larger chunk of the revenue pie.

It can help a state go several notches higher in terms of human development indices by accomplishing the key markers of socio-economic development. Just take the example of the state of Kerala and see how much it has gained in terms of social welfare, health, education and in the other indices of human development.

That is also an example of subnationalism, but without fanning the flames of a divisive, internecine war. When subnationalism is used as a tool to engineer social and economic development, its efficacy is all-pervading and it’s a sustainable end game. Use the same tool for narrow political gains or a clarion-call to muster herd mentality, it is bound to bite back.

‘Non-Bengali intrusion’

It may be par for the course today to call the BJP or for that matter any party or political leader from any other part of India an “outsider” and portray such a “non-Bengali intrusion” into Bengal’s political mainstream as a corrupting influence. But do spare a thought for that migrant labourer from Bengal who may have to step out of the state tomorrow in search of two square meals.

Do spare a thought for those disturbing days and months when Bengalis in Assam found themselves at the wrong end of a socio-cultural and political angst in the 1980s, or for that matter the treatment meted out to migrant workers from Bihar in the state of Maharashtra a few years ago. These are all examples of subnationalism gone awfully wrong. If we are so intent on sowing the wind today, let’s also be prepared to reap the whirlwind tomorrow!

As Bengal heads to one of the most fascinating elections in living memory in Indian political history, it is time — not just for an average voter, but an average Bengali — to spare a thought on this: Does he or she really want to be collateral damage in a vitriolic campaign rhetoric?

Also spare a thought on this: That Bengal’s time-defying icons such as Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose or for that matter Amartya Sen, Satyajit Ray or Sourav Ganguly never had to bank on an ‘insider-outsider’ diatribe to help Bengal embrace internationalism, to help Bengal go global in the true sense of the term.

Think. Choice is yours.