West Bengal’s move from Red to Green and now Saffron seems almost as heretical as if the Vatican turned into the Kremlin in the old Soviet Union. Bharatiya Janata Party stalwarts have, of late, taken to reiterating that the Jana Sangh, from which they claim descent, was founded by a Bengali, Shyamaprasad Mookerjee.
But that was one man’s inventiveness in a remote past. In recent years even under the Trinamul Congress, the gut sentiment of Bengalis has been opposed to everything that popular imagination associates with the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
No longer. Frustrated in their social aspirations and economic expectations, Bengalis are shedding their traditional liberalism and retreating into a ghetto of the mind where the saviour for many is not mounted on a white charger but draped in a saffron flag.
Voting decisions are not based on a single factor. Many reasons enter into the calculations of a people who nurse a sense of grievance because they feel done out of their historical leadership role. Bengalis are forever comparing a supposedly halcyon past, when it was famously said that “what Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow,” to the shabby present when thousands of Bengalis are forced to leave the state every year to seek jobs elsewhere. In this situation Bengal did not blame Amit Shah for describing immigrants from Bangladesh as “termites”. They applauded him.
West Bengal feels it is paying the price for being one of India’s most cosmopolitan states. Leslie Claudius and Leander Paes, the sportsmen, Usha Uthup the singer, the revolutionary, Jangal Santhal, are from Bengal. Kolkata is the only Indian city with a natural and old Chinatown.
Some 60 per cent of the population of Darjeeling district is of Nepali ethnicity. Bengal’s Bhutiyas, Lepchas and Santhals have no other home. About 25 per cent of the 91 million population (2011 Census) are Muslim. More to the point, perhaps, 15 per cent are not Bengalis. In Kolkata the non-Bengali, mainly Hindi-speaking, share goes up to 40 per cent.
Kolkata was a British creation although many Bengalis choose to deny this. They will probably also deny that the richest and most influential settlers are Banias from Rajasthan’s Marwar district. Drawn by lucrative trading opportunities, the influx spiralled by 400 per cent between 1890 and 1920. The community was involved in 1917 in the great scandal of adulterated ghee, a trade Marwaris monopolised. As frenzied rumours swept Bengal, tests showed that only seven out of 67 samples were pure cow’s milk ghee.
One sample had only five per cent ghee, another not a drop. Much of it was untouchable fat that would horrify any self-respecting gau-rakshak. Pundits from Benares prescribed costly and elaborate purification ceremonies, and Lord Ronaldshay, Bengal’s governor, noted the “electrifying” spectacle of nearly 5,000 Brahmins desperately cleansing themselves by the Hooghly.
If only 5 per cent of Muslim voters voted for the BJP, 100 per cent and more of the Hindi-speaking population, Marwaris and others, voted for the BJP. The BJP and the RSS, once anathema to liberal Bengalis, has been cultivating Bengali opinion for two years. They received the support of many Bengalis who feel let down by Mamata Banerjee who is accused of being pro-Muslim.
Her latest offence is to appoint a faithful Muslim supporter, Firhad (Bobby) Hakim, mayor of Kolkata. Earlier, she was said to wear a hijab, say namaz with Muslims, and offer all manner of prizes – including stipends of Rs 2,500 and land for house construction – to 30,000 imams and muezzins. Trying to repair the damage, she got Hakim to recently promise Rs 380 to Brahmin priests per corpse at the cremation ghat but this was too little and too late.
Mamata Banerjee was able to defeat the Marxists who had been in power for 34 years because their land reforms and minimum agricultural wages had created a revolution of expectations they could not meet. Young village boys with a smattering of education yearned for white-collar job and middle-class respectability. But there were no jobs for them in the absence of investment in the state. Having driven Tatas out of West Bengal, Banerjee now finds herself hoist with her own petard. Bengali voters who ditched her have yet to discover that the BJP hasn’t created too many jobs either.