The Argument against Didi That People Should Be Making
This election season seems to have brought out an elitist resentment against the brand of politics that Mamata Banerjee represents in the eyes of the urban and sub urban bhadralok class, who are a very image conscious group of people. We would often hear the standard critique of Banerjee and the TMC as a whole being the party of ‘rowdy and uncouth politicians’ whose prose isn’t the standard eloquent verbose and cerebral type that the erstwhile left leaders seemed to have represented.
To the youth as well as the middle aged of this generation(even the older generations feel that way) there seems to be a fascination towards a more old timey CPM and Congress state committee leader types whose educational qualifications are admirable and whose personality really resembles the kind of idealist politicians that we are accustomed to fawning over. The image problem however is of course related to the charisma of the leader but there is a remarkable difference in what the so called Bengali bhadralok class considers charismatic and what actually seems to be a successful formula of charismatic personality.
Mamata Bannerjee’s charisma however emanates from her ability to transcend the bhadralok rules of political engagement and what counts as an admirable gimmick. She speaks in the unpolished tone of people traditionally hailing from the lower castes and classes and has an almost sociopathic ability to carry around an air of charm that really appeals to the large number of people in Bengal. Make no mistake, this is not an appeal to the “lowest common denominator”(which is a ridiculously patronizing way to describe people we don’t relate to). This is an appeal to the “highest common factor”(if you will) that culturally unites and is at once relatable to an overwhelming majority of Bengalis.
Her embrace of the Tollywood industry figures, her celebration of a Bengali culture that isn’t distinctly upper caste in character, her patronage to local cultural institutions has really helped create a rainbow coalition of several identities from OBC muslims(Furfura sharif) to Urdu speakers; from Namashudras to even Upper Caste Hindu sections of the society. When she comments about “aloor chop shilpo” she may be despised for being an absolute moron but by her embrace and recognition of certain professions that are restricted to certain castes historically by virtue of their birth or to certain classes in general because of restricted social mobility, she is instilling a sense of pride in these people that they too are contributing to the vibrant state of Bengal and that they too are engines of the Bengal economy in their own way.
These kinds of statements are extremely empowering. But our Editor-in-Chief Ritinkar has spoken about this at length already. But these aren’t really legitimate arguments to be made against Mamata. Here are the four main arguments that people should be making about her:-
1 Her patronage of clubs and other such local institutions have enabled her to consolidate a tremendous amount of extra constitutional power that has created a parallel channel of power and sovereignty.
It is not just the state that has legitimate authority anymore but a parallel set of institutions patronized by the ruling party and their associated syndicate of businesses has created a situation of dual sovereignty. The situation gets more complex as unintended rifts within rival factions result in a further segmentation of sovereignty, a carving out of territory if you will that really is reminiscent of the most organized of mafia outfits that you have ever seen in the movies. The left rule followed an exact similar model to “get out the vote” and mobilize support but that is precisely what the fabled “poriborton” stood against.
2Mamata Bannerjee falls within the category of political leaders that command authority through personal charisma and mobilize support to a great extent focused on a personality cult.
We see this throughout the regional political landscape so much so that you could almost argue that at the popular level regional politics is personality driven. History has enough evidences to support such a hypothesis from MGR, Anna Durai or EMS Namboodripad or Indira Gandhi to modern day Amma, Lalu, Netaji Yadav, the Patnaiks and even our Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was really once a very popular regional leader. In many cases as in TMC’s, the party itself is consolidated around the personality cult of Didi. Such charismatic authority, although a regular feature of post colonial politics all over the world is really a hindrance to the long term liberal democratic goals of transforming politics into a more issue driven narrative.
3 Her embrace of identity politics is admirable and it has for the first time allowed for several excluded communities to take dominant role in many districts level politics but there is really no real empowerment of these communities.
So far the TMC has just engaged in good old fashioned pandering and strategic patronage to community leaders which leads to a tacit power sharing but the real power really stays within the elites among the lower caste as the case of the Matuas really suggests.This real issues of citizenship and representation that Mamata ran on seems to now have been relegated to the bottom of the priority list.
4 The identity politics she has played can really fracture identities in irreparable ways than actually forge strong coalitions that will lead to a communitarian welfare.
Again the case of the Matuas. There has been a resentment against Muslims gaining more representation and internal factions arising within the community with the factions getting divided along partisan lines.
In conclusion while there is a genuine reason to be elated at the embrace of politics of social inclusion, it is really important to be able to turn this identity politics into a model for a more inclusive development and not merely a cynical game of vote banks which often leads to inter communal resentment and can lead to a future opening for a more sinister identity politics of Hinutva that is neither accepting of plurality nor a champion of lower caste empowerment.