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OP-ED: The game is afoot, but what is being played?

  • Published at 06:50 pm September 2nd, 2021

Khela hobe is the war cry of Mamata Banerjee supporters, but will this game affect Bangladesh?

Gopal Krishna Gokhale -- an early 20th century Indian social reformer and a proponent of selfrule is widely considered to be a rare liberal voice in the sub-continent’s political tradition. He greatly admired Bengal, and famously said: “What Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow.” 

Well, when it comes to Hindu nationalism, (the Indian/Hindu/West) Bengal is definitely not a front-runner. While the Hindu chauvinist BJP gained parliamentary strength in New Delhi throughout the 1990s and formed successive governments during 1998-2004, West Bengal continued to vote for communists.  

The Left Front ran the state for 34 years to 2011 -- the longest stretch of democratically elected communist rule anywhere in the world. Even as the Modi wave swept the rest of the country, West Bengal held out under Mamata Banerjee’s steadfast opposition to Hindutva.

Then, earlier this year, the Indian prime minister was handed his biggest electoral setback when the West Bengal chief minister was re-elected with a resounding majority in the legislative assembly. 

Khela hobe -- the game is afoot! 

That was the viral rallying cry of Banerjee’s supporters before the election. And she has kept up the tempo -- khela hobe -- she continues to say. But what exactly is the game? 

Of course, political animals know that the zinger is from our side of the Radcliffe Line. A colourful politician from one of our cities, someone with the height, gait, and swagger of Amitabh angry-young-man Bachchan, once upon a time challenged his political opponents to meet him in the street -- khela hobe

The video went viral in 2013, and became an election ditty across the border in 2021. This wasn’t, however, the only link with Bangladesh the election campaign had. Banerjee had used the slogan Joy Bangla -- associated with the 1971 War of Liberation in general, and Awami League in particular -- in several public meetings. She had also expressed her admiration for Bangladesh’s founding president.

What exactly is the game she is playing?

Meanwhile, the losing side also had Bangladesh connections. Far more disturbing ones. 

Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh, ostensibly to mark the country’s 50th birthday. But he also visited the temple of a particular caste that was apparently expected to play a crucial role in several marginal seats. 

And Modi’s party ran videos that used images of atrocities committed by Pakistan Army in 1971 and claiming that Banerjee was soft on Muslim terrorists, or something like that. 

This was one ugly campaign. And worryingly, whatever game is being played over there, it’s probably far from over.

In the 2019 national election, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party captured 16 of the state’s 42 seats to the Lok Sabha (the federal legislature), up from 2014’s two, and the highest ever scored by a Hindu nationalist party in the state. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress lost ground, but still had more seats in 2019 than a decade earlier. The Left Front, in contrast, went from 15 seats in 2009, to two in 2014, to zero in 2019.

In the newly elected state assembly, Banerjee’s party has 213 seats, not that different from 211 won in 2016. Modi’s party lost the election decisively, bagging only 72 seats. But five years ago, there were only three BJP legislators in Kolkata.

Meanwhile, the mighty Left that ran the state for so long, dwindled to, wait-for-it, zero seats in both 2019 and 2021. 

That is, the only parliament with a Bengali leftist member is the one in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar!

What is going on here? Did the Bengali communists become Hindu chauvinist in the span of a decade, as might be implied by a straightforward reading of these results?  

Following on the footsteps of seminal works on 20th century Bengal by JH Broomfield, Joya Chatterji, and Partha Chatterjee, Ishan Mukherjee has argued that the late but eventual rise of BJP in West Bengal is a reflection of evolving political choices of the bhadralok elite. 

Against BJP stands Ms Benerjee, whose political project is explained by Garga Chatterjee as “a near universally-shared conception in West Bengal of West Bengal being the fountainhead of Bengali Hindudom globally.”

Will (Hindu) Bengal think tomorrow what (Hindu) India thought yesterday? If they do, the consequences will be profound. 

It appears that three-quarters of a century after the unholy days of bloodshed in Kolkata, Noakhali, and Bihar, games are again afoot over there. Khela hobe. Definitely. It’s just that Bangladesh will feel the effects of a game that it has never sought to play!

There may well be an ill wind blowing from the west, such a wind as never blew on Bengal yet. It may well be hot and dusty, and a good many may wither before its blast. And I doubt a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the monsoon when the rain eventually washes away the dust. 

Jyoti Rahman reads and watches stuff and writes about them at www.jrahman.substack.com.

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