The Indian state of West Bengal is currently holding its state elections. Voting began on March 27th and continues until the end of April
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing, Hindu nationalist party that holds power at the federal level, is polling ahead of its rivals and is likely to win the state for the first time.
However, the chances are that - like most Kiwis - this has bypassed your attention.
If India does come to mind it might be because of the record number of Covid cases, or the current travel restrictions between India and New Zealand.
However, West Bengal is a big and important state. It has about the same population as Germany, over 90 million people, and Bengali is the seventh most widely-spoken language in the world.
For all sorts of reasons who rules in Bengal matters for India.
At the 2016 state election the BJP won only three of the 294 assembly seats (they did much better at the federal level in 2019).
So what is behind the rapid change? Has Bengal, a state that does not have a tradition of overt Hindu nationalism, changed in a fundamental way? Time will tell, but my sense is it has not.
Rather we have reached the logical conclusion of ‘party society’, a term coined by political analyst Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, where the primacy of political parties, their ubiquity in daily life and their control of civil institutions, such as the police, has led to what's been dubbed an "all-pervasive and oppressive party control" by economist Pranab Bardhan.
In an article for the Economic and Political Weekly, Bardhan wrote: "If you want a public hospital bed for your seriously ill family member, you have to be a supplicant with the local party boss; if you want to start a small business or be a street vendor you have to pay protection money to the party boss; if you want to ply a taxi or an autorickshaw you have to pay a tribute to the local party union; if you want a schoolteacher‘s job you have to be approved by the “local committee” and pay them an appropriate amount; if you want to build a house you have to employ party-approved construction workers and buy higher-priced or inferior-quality building materials from party-approved suppliers; if you want to buy land, you have to go through the party-connected “promoter”."
The ideology of those in power is less important than your relationship with them.
The best example of this is the defection of many of the top leaders of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the party that has held power for the last ten years, to the BJP.
They have seen the writing on the wall, and the BJP has been quite specific that its control of resources, money and patronage at a federal level is a reason to vote for them.
So how did we get here? West Bengal, along with Kerala, a state in the south-west of India, has a long left-wing tradition.
In fact for 34 years it elected a coalition of leftwing parties dominated by the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M).
It was the longest democratically elected communist government in the world and featured curiosities like the Naxalite rebellion – a communist rebellion in a communist controlled state.
However, after land reforms that threatened to make a real difference to the lives of its largely rural population, its radicalism and ambition dwindled.
As the party ossified, growth stalled and poverty remained pervasive, the importance of power for power’s sake grew.
In 2007 politics in Bengal was entirely upended by events at Nandigram. The then government, the CPI-M, sought to forcibly acquire 10,000 acres of rural, densely populated land to allow an Indonesian multinational conglomerate, the Salim group, to construct a chemical hub.
After the largely peasant population of the region blocked access to the area the police and members of the CPI-M shot and killed 14 and injured hundreds.
Videos and pictures of this state-sponsored violence travelled all around the world. The violence continued, support for the CPI-M cratered and it eventually lost power at the 2011 state elections.
The communists were seen as a party that had lost its ideological moorings., and there was hope among many in Bengali civil society that Nandigram might herald the dawn of a new era, a turn away from neoliberal policies and to a more responsive democratic stance.
Instead, we have seen the entrenching of party society and the normalisation of political violence.
The party that defeated the CPI-M in 2011 was the TMC. It could broadly be described as a populist party that was adept at exploiting the memory of Nandigram.
For example, it used pictures of the burnt body of Tapasi Malik, a 17 year old raped and killed at Singur by the CPI-M, on election billboards. But the TMC also used violence to capture the resources of the state and as the violence continued Bengalis began to turn away from both parties.
In Nandigram, this is neatly encapsulated by the career of Suvendu Adhikari the BJP candidate for the area. Adhikari is a scion of an important local family and self-styled bhumiputra or son of the soil.
His political rise began at Nandigram and he subsequently rose to become one of the most important and prominent members of the TMC.
Despite his high rank he switched to the BJP in late 2020.
Nandigram was known for Muslim-Hindu cooperation and although Adhikari recently accused the TMC of creating “a mini-Pakistan” in Bengal there is little evidence that his defection is anything but political expediency.
In Bengal politics risks becoming a zero-sum game, where who is in power, and your relationship to them can be the difference between finishing high school or getting a doctors appointment.
If the BJP can prove they can deliver this to enough people, they will be on their way to success in West Bengal.
Banner image: Senior BJP leader Simriti Irani campaigns in the city of Malda, West Bengal / photo PTI
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
- Asia Media Centre