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West Bengal 2021: Will public intellectuals have an impact on the upcoming election?


If all political analyses of West Bengal in the last few years could be monetised, it could contribute significantly to the national economy. One such popular analysis is that the forthcoming assembly elections will take place in a post-‘bhadralok’ era, the bhadralok — this entity always a man — being an idealist who likes old houses, poetry, ‘art cinema,’ etc, and is held responsible for the state’s economic downturn.

This bhadralok, goes the argument, is in direct conflict with the adorable folks who live in Bengal’s villages and vote for Trinamool Congress (TMC) and will now vote for BJP. These imagined communities of bucolic Bengal supposedly revile literature, haven’t heard of Satyajit Ray and, unlike the good-for-nothing, head-in-the-clouds bhadralok, are non-judgmental of their ‘inarticulate’ rural brethren. People from such mythical villages apparently wait in hordes to teach city-slicker liberals who indulge in ‘hobbies’ like secularism a lesson.

Of course, these two spaces of the cosmopolitan and rural are fantastic (adjective of ‘fantasy’). But this narrative has not been conjured out of thin air. It has its base in the receding importance of ‘intellectuals’, identified as leaders of the bhadralok class, in the politics of West Bengal.

The last time public ‘intellectuals’ had an impact on state elections was in 2009, after the 2008 violence in Singur, Hooghly district, over the land acquisition for a proposed Tata Nano factory subsequently driven out by the-then in opposition TMC, and the violence in 2007 in Nandigram, East Midnapore, over land acquisition for the Left Front’s plan to set up a special economic zone (SEZ). Post-2011, the ‘intellectually inclined’ have maintained a distance from TMC government ideology, even when they have been its beneficiaries. Now BJP state president Dilip Ghosh has been prolific about his distaste for ‘intellectuals,’ calling them ‘cowards and opportunists’.

But lament and pride over ‘lost greatness’ still holds the public imagination — a loss that many ascribe to some conspiracy – as well as political cache, grouses making for a great electoral tool. So, for BJP’s central leadership to hark on the Bengali’s siesta dream to ‘Make Bengal Great Again’ seems logical. While Home Minister Amit Shah’s promise to the people this weekend was a return to ‘sonar Bangla’ (golden Bengal) under BJP rule, the central leadership keeps talking about the state’s past glory and present ruin under TMC rule.

There remains, however, one thorny aspect in travelling back to Bengal’s ‘glorious past’ — you cannot speak about it without talking about its ‘intellectuals’. In this, BJP has taken a leaf out of TMC’s playbook. It is now gushing about Rabindranath Tagore. It is being respectful of social reformer-scholar Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, whose bust was ‘mysteriously’ destroyed during Amit Shah’s May 2019 Lok Sabha elections campaign rally in Kolkata. It even made ill-advised attempts to use Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema on partition to garner support for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, before being rebuffed by Ghatak’s family members.

But BJP has bungled along the way. Vidyasagar has been attributed as the writer of the wrong children’s textbook. The latest goof-up by Shah about Tagore’s birthplace hasn’t helped. These may seem pointless minutiae that bear no relevance to the ‘larger scheme of things,’ but Bengalis love trivia and flogging those who get it wrong, Mamata Banerjee included.

For BJP, delving too much into ‘cultural pride’ may have exposed its quickie ‘election points-gathering’ skills. What the party may not have realised is that the pursuit of ‘intellectual’ cache for appropriation is a high investment proposition with little to gain, but much to lose if played shoddily. Instead, BJP could do better by being silent and taking the low(brow) road of development, etc avoiding the ‘cultural greatness’ path.

In 2019, there was controversy over a video of university students in a Kolkata campus dancing to a parody of a Tagore’s song replete with cuss words. At that time, there were people who demanded that penal action — and even violent action – be taken against these ‘louts’. I had asked one such outraged person which part of Tagore’s philosophy condoned the violence he demanded against the youngsters. He had replied that he didn’t care for philosophy ‘like losers’ but would not tolerate an ‘attack on Bengali pride’. He was representative of a larger picture, which soon transmuted into a wave of violent threats on social media and police complaints against the students.

Social commentator Chandril Bhattacharya once explained how despite the ubiquitous presence of Tagore in West Bengal, hardly any Bengali reads him beyond the most elementary texts. The same ‘concealed apathy’ and impassioned lip-service holds for other icons. So, appropriating or co-opting icons should not be a cause of much concern for any party. But proactively messing things up about them may be a risk not worth the ‘effort’.





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