Why results of Narendra Modi vs Mamata Banerjee battle won’t change Bengal's stasis

PM Narendra Modi - Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee
Monday’s fourth phase of the seven-part general election epic saw a depressingly familiar plotline: poll violence in Bengal, starring crude bombs, cottage industry guns, snatched EVMs, etc. Violence and the Modi vs Mamata battle — the latter, a crucial factor in determining what BJP’s final tally will be — have, of course, made Bengal an election hotspot. ‘Change’ is the national media storyline for Bengal. Will Bengal change political loyalties, and, if so, by how much?

But the real story of Bengal is of ‘no change’, 40-plus-years of terrible stasis. And when votes are counted, irrespective of BJP’s and Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) seat numbers, the story won’t change.

So, what is the Bengal story? Communism as an idea took hold among sections of the Bengali middle class post-Independence largely because the bhadralok felt elites of the Hindi heartland had cornered most of the establishment spoils (Marcus Franda’s ‘Radical Politics in West Bengal’ offers an excellent analysis of this). In part, therefore, Bengal’s communism was an assertion of regional identity marketed as ‘progressive’ politics.

When communists took power in 1977 in the state, they built a three-element political-economic-electoral model and executed it with ruthless efficiency. First, after a partially successful distribution of land rights in Bengal’s villages, CPM presided over a period of high agricultural growth generated by labour-intensive cultivation of small plots.

Second, as industrial capital largely stayed away, the party massively encouraged informal employment, especially in urban and semi-urban areas. Informal employment is a term used by economists that, in plain English, means jobs like small traders, street vendors, cabbies, shopkeepers and all their assistants. An analysis by Abhirup Sarkar (‘Political Economy of West Bengal’, Economic & Political Weekly, January 28, 2006; bit.do/eQXKK) estimated that the growth of informal employment was as high as 15% annually in Bengal in the 1990s.

Careful observers will have noted that, by themselves, these two elements — labour-intensive cultivation and informal employment — don’t make CPM’s Bengal model very different from economic realities in many other states. Indeed, small farming and lack of industrial employment are pan-India big-ticket debate items in 2019 general elections.

Upstaged by Politricks
What made CPM’s Bengal model different was that these two elements were joined by a third: Stalinist political mobilisation that made the party a pivotal player in these economic activities, as patron and contract enforcer. CPM, in fact, ran a vast political army. Partha Chatterjee, in his ‘Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism’, estimated that in early 1990s — the peak of CPM’s reign in Bengal — two million party cadre was deployed for elections in the state. Bengal’s electorate then was around 40 million. That means a stunning 5% of the state’s voting-age population was active in poll work for the ruling party.

Commentators who talk about BJP and RSS’ huge electoral army should know that the Sangh Parivar is far, far away from deploying 5% of, say, the Hindi heartland’s population for election management. CPM’s political machine was that all-encompassing.

The machine malfunctioned though when farm growth slowed, as inevitably happens in small plot/labour-intensive cultivation models, and informal employment, equally inevitably, couldn’t sustain itself as a permanent solutionfor non-village job search. Plus, CPM had, even by Indian standards, neglected rural welfare provisioning and infrastructure. As growth faltered, these inadequacies posed greater problems. CPM’s response was enforced industrialisation. The result was the bloody upheaval of Singur and coronation of Mamata Banerjee as the challenger. The rest, as Bengalis will say, is itihas (history). Mamata beat Marxists.

But sadly for Bengal, itihas pretty much repeated itself. Like Marxists, Mamata has presided over a period of high agricultural growth that’s unsustainable in a small plot/labour-intensive production framework. Just as it happened under Marxists, small nonfarm enterprises have grown briskly, and just as earlier, they are not the answer to non-farm job creation.

Mamata runs the same ruthless political machine Marxists did, perhaps with less finesse and more brutality. There’s no study on the extent of TMC cadre deployment for polls. But chances are high that Mamata’s election army is as big as CPM’s.

Mamata, like Marxists, is also looking for big industrial investment, and just like them, she hasn’t had much success finding it. Land for industry is a tough question everywhere in India, but perhaps nowhere more so than in Bengal.

Mamata can’t walk away from her populist Singur protester image, even as she beams hearing Mukesh Ambani say West Bengal is ‘Best Bengal’. And the neglect of statewide infrastructure has continued under TMC. Ask those who have travelled extensively in both Odisha and Bengal during these elections, they will tell you roads in the former are in a far better state.

Caught in a Time Warp
Thus Bengal’s four-decade stasis. The only difference is that religious polarisation perhaps plays a greater role in Modi versus Mamata battles than it did in Mamata versus Marxists ones. What Bengal needs is a new kind of politics at the state level, one that abandons the 40-year-old machine.

That’s not happening now. So, after May 23, no matter who wins how much, Bengal’s will be the same old story. 


Monday’s fourth phase of the seven-part general election epic saw a depressingly familiar plotline: poll violence in Bengal, starring crude bombs, cottage industry guns, snatched EVMs, etc. Violence and the Modi vs Mamata battle — the latter, a crucial factor in determining what BJP’s final tally will

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