Bengalis are inordinately proud of their culture, perhaps even chauvinistic. Others are too about their respective regional culture, but Bengalis make it a point to emphasise that in non-Bengali environments, for example by speaking in Bangla in the presence of others or invoking local icons in every discussion. Bengalis find it the most natural thing to do, others may find it parochial.
They call those Bengalis who live outside the motherland as probashi, and they are judged for not being quite authentic, for having imbibed other cultures and thus having diluted their own.
In such an environment of exceptionalism, it was ambitious, if not foolhardy for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to try and win the state by pushing its Hindutva agenda and not appreciating what it is to be a Bengali. The BJP, with its one-size-fits-all strategy, did not fully grasp the essence of ‘Bengaliness’, which is as alien from the Hindutva as can possibly be imagined in a country dominated by Hindus.
At the very basic level, Bengalis are not given to worshipping Ram in the manner the BJP likes to prescribe – they do not say Jai Shri Ram, they are not vegetarians, they have no interest in the tenets of the Manusmriti. And they certainly do not speak Hindi or care to – there is no dearth of memes and jokes about a Bengali trying to speak the language. Indeed, there is a level of disdain for those who come from the Hindi belt.
Bengalis, especially Calcuttans, are proud of being cosmopolitans and their colonial connections – names of roads given by the British still visible, unlike say in Mumbai, and when a new name is given, it is after an international cultural or political figure (thus Shakespeare Sarani or Ho Chi Minh street in Kolkata). A BJP government will look askance at these. Beef is freely available and there are bars aplenty on Park Street, and the British-era clubs are proud of maintaining old colonial traditions.
The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine, brimming with confidence, came into the state armed with everything – money, muscle and the power of central institutions and the national media. MLAs quickly defected from the Trinamool Congress and the media was quick to declare it a non-fight; Mamata Banerjee would lose. Both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah held innumerable rallies and Shah declared the BJP would win over 200 seats. Modi went full Rabindranath Tagore, growing his beard, but unlike the poet, known for his humanism and his contempt for nationalism, failed to modify his message and eventually descended into cheap name calling with his mocking ‘Didi o didi’ while referring to Banerjee. That undoubtedly got the backs of the women voters up – Banerjee’s administration may be corruption ridden, but she is personally loved and her simple lifestyle is much admired, never mind what the snooty bhadralok think about her.
But most of all, Modi and Shah were seen as bohiragarto, outsiders, who simply did not understand and appreciate Bengal’s unique culture. Their anti-Muslim polarisation strategy, which has proved successful elsewhere, did not work in a state that has not seen a major communal riot in a long time. Nor has Modi delivered on anything – from the economy to the management of the pandemic. What did he have to offer that the locals needed – what was ashol poriborton beyond a shallow slogan?
The Modi-Shah package has come a cropper elsewhere too. In Kerala it never stood a chance, but in Maharashtra, even in 2014, the party managed to form the government only with the help of the Shiv Sena, which too was desperate to come to power. That combine failed to come together in 2019. But beyond political strategies and compromises, culturally, the BJP is hated in much of Maharashtra and has always been called a party of ‘Bhatjis and Shetjis’ (Brahmins and traders). Brahmins are viewed with great suspicion in the state, where history stands proof that they ruled by perfidy. In the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination, Brahmin neighbourhoods in Bombay and other cities were targeted by angry crowds and politically, the scene has been dominated by the anti-Brahmin but no less casteist Marathas.
In Mumbai, Marathi speakers resent the imposition of vegetarianism by influential Gujaratis and Jains in buildings they own and dominate. Though Modi did impress many among the Marathi manoos in 2014, he was an unknown quantity and his emphasis on the economy and jobs was taken at face value. That charm had disappeared five years later.
Yet, the BJP continues to persist with single-mindedness with its one-point programme – to transform the whole of India with Hindutva and turn it into a Hindu rashtra. That includes not just sidelining Muslims completely, but also imposing new laws and social structures in conformity with its own ideology. The BJP and its parent body the RSS actually believe that India, with an 80% Hindu population, can be converted into a Hindu rashtra, despite strong evidence that there are differences in cultures and traditions, each of which the locals are proud of.
Many Hindus are simply not interested in political Hindutva – if they were, the BJP would get an overwhelming vote, far more than the record 37% it got in 2019. Most Hindus are secular and do not necessarily vote on religious lines. Modi’s success has been to bring into the fold those who believed that he was committed to growth and efficient governance, and now, with the struggling economy and the mismanagement of the rampaging pandemic, many of them are bound to be move away.
The problem with the Modi-Shah combine and others like Yogi Adityanath, is that they don’t know any other way. Modi ignored the desperate situation in hospitals and concentrated only on the Bengal elections and now is going ahead with a vanity project of destroying the Central Vista in Delhi at an estimated cost of Rs 20,000 crore. This is plain hubris, and a cold-heartedness that is deaf to the cries of COVID-19 victims.
At some point it has to give. Elections are won or lost because of several reasons, but a tone-deaf administration, that barges into a state without taking time off to appreciate and understand its culture, and neglects its dharma to govern, will run out of steam sooner or later.
The formidable reputation that the Modi-Shah combine has built up over the years as an unbeatable electoral machine, was already shaky because of many defeats, but now has been dented beyond repair. Banerjee made them look like amateurs, floundering in a state and among people who do not take kindly to being told by some Hindi speakers how they will change the state. We have problems but will attend to them in our way, the Bengalis have answered back. Modi and Shah should draw the right lessons from that.