A political battle on cultural terms?


THE complexity and intricacies of the political processes involved in the electoral dynamics have been once again testified by the 2021 West Bengal Assembly election. As it had been conjectured, the Bharatiya Janata Party (hereafter BJP) became a significant contender in this election compared to the 2016 Assembly election. Still, the meteoric rise of the BJP on the political scene in West Bengal, as in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, seems to have been stunted to some extent in 2021.

The BJP’s stunning 2019 show seemed highly inadequate to dismantle the ruling All India Trinamool Congress (hereafter AITC) which retained its stronghold here for the third time
in a row. On top of that, the AITC further improved its vote and seat share as compared to 2016. Table 1 captures the overall performance of the stakeholders of the election and also illustrates that the decline in the significance of the Left and the Congress (two important faces of the Sanyukta Morcha) continues in 2021, pushing it further towards the margins.

Usually it has been a common practice to analyse electoral outcome through political and socio-economic parameters. This is perhaps the first time cultural and ideological concerns seem to have significantly affected the electoral outcome. Throughout the phases of the electoral campaigns a cultural battle seemingly raged between the AITC and the BJP.

The AITC, capitalising on the quintessential Bengali cultural identity reinforced by a typically Bengali political leadership, invoked the rhetoric of bahiragata (outsider) to brand the BJP and its central leadership largely consisting of non-Bengalis. The BJP, disproportionately dependent upon its central leadership failed to overcome this stigma assigned to them. Vaguely gauging the importance of the unique cultural legacy of Bengal in the everyday life of the Bengalis, the BJP instead attempted vainly to imitate the Bengali language and other cultural patterns. Somehow this, along with BJP’s overarching Hindutva ideology seemed to strengthen the discourse of bahiragata.



Indeed, in the CSDS-Lokniti West Bengal Assembly Election Study, a majority (about 46%) of the respondents felt that the AITC would be the best to protect the Bengali culture. Consequently, the AITC’s slogan Bangla nijer meyeke chay (Bengal wants her own daughter) seemed to gain considerable public support. The significant influence of the cultural concerns in this electoral outcome, hence necessarily calls for a study of the electoral proclivities of the Bengali middle class that is often considered the originator and perpetuator of the quintessential Bengali culture.



To understand the electoral tendencies of the middle class a consideration of Table 2 seems necessary.

The table reveals a clear trend in the electoral preferences of the poor and the lower economic classes. However the electoral preferences of the middle class and the rich are not quite clear as they seem to have almost equal affinities to both the major contenders AITC and BJP. Such electoral tendency of the middle class in the context of a culturally contested election seems to problematize its historical role in shaping and propagating the quintessential Bengali cultural identity. A brief look at the history of the development of the unique cultural atmosphere of Bengal heralded by the emerging new Bengali middle class in 19th century seems to substantiate the above argument.



Table 2 identifies the middle class on a purely economic basis. Though this gives us a close approximation of it, the Bengali middle class cannot be ultimately defined economically. It has a deep rooted cultural connotation in Bengal rising out of the colonial interaction with the British and eventually assuming the pivotal role in the Bengali political and cultural life over the course of the long 19th century. Imbibing and imitating the Victorian high modernity of the British colonisers, the English educated, Bengali upper caste middle class in Kolkata incorporated certain typically ‘modern’ cultural and religious ideas with certain traditional Indian values through a ‘strategic essentialism’2. This gave rise to a specific brand of colonial modernity that eventually shaped the bhadralok3 culture in Bengal.



The contemporary civil society of Bengal is also rooted in this cultural habitus. Franda defines bhadralok as an ‘elite that is unique to the Bengali-speaking area.’ He goes on to state:‘Neither a single class nor a single caste, the bhadralok (literally “respectable people,” or “gentlemen”; sometimes called just borolok or “big people”) are a privileged minority most often drawn from the three highest castes… usually... employed in professional or clerical occupations… very well educated… and highly skilled in maintaining communal integration’.4

The bhadralok phenomenon apart from ushering in a unique and overarching cultural overtone to Bengali social life also happened to be the harbinger of the idea of Indian nationalism. In this context, Chatterjee5 argues, ‘nationalism was not simply about a political struggle for power: it related the question of the political independence of the nation to virtually every aspect of the material and spiritual life of the people’. This material and spiritual distinction was substantiated by the inner/outer, ghar o bahir (home and abroad) analogy that eventually gave rise to the modern Bengali private sphere. Following Chakrabarty we can relate this idea of bahir with the political/public life of the modern individual that is ‘lived in citizenship.’6



This notion of the public life is inextricably linked to the ‘interiorized “private” self’7 that Chakrabarty asserts is central to the idea of the modern individual. Indeed, the idea of privacy is not peculiar to the colonial modernity but is also one of the most significant markers of the dominant discourse of modernity in general.

In the context of Bengal, since the spiritual became analogous to the inner/home/private essentially insulated domestic space, religious practices/rituals out of their own accord came to be domesticated within the private sphere of the family. Quite naturally religion hasn’t traditionally been relevant in the political life of Bengal. An analysis of Table 3 suggests that this trend seems to hold sway even in 21st century Bengal.

From Table 3 it is evident that most of the respondents pray daily, visit temples and keep vrat/rozas/fasts on festivals and never watch religious television channels or read religious books. This gives us three observations: (i) People are not irreligious – they pray privately but regularly; (ii) People avoid the overtly public exposition of religious practices by largely avoiding religious television channels or religious books; and (iii) Religion intrudes the public sphere only during festivals.



This table displays findings of a survey on a randomly selected sample of respondents scattered all over Bengal. Though no assertion regarding a monolithic essentially middle class culture can be made in case of the diverse socio-cultural rubric of Bengal, this table certainly asserts that the domestication of religion is not simply a middle class bhadralok phenomenon but is observed all over Bengal at large. This might also suggest that the bhadralok culture has over the time percolated throughout the cross-sections of the Bengali society. Chatterjee and Basu8 also assert that the hegemony of the bhadralok culture is usually accepted by the general mass of Bengal.



Our first and third observations lead us into a further theoretical study of the place of religion in Bengali culture and its links with 19th century colonial modernity. If we closely analyse the place of religion in 19th century Bengali cultural life, it becomes evident that religion though highly interiorized, still exhibits a private and a public dimension. In the private sphere, religion is very much a part of everyday life. There is a grihadevata (the protector deity) in almost every house and every household action (including cooking and the meals) begins by paying homage to the deity. Every morning and every evening begins by worshipping the deity. The God doesn’t reside separately in the temple, but every home is sacred in the sense that a deity resides in it. Chakrabarty calls it ‘the everyday pantheism of Hindu families’.9

Hence the sanctity of the religious practices is also hardly a matter of public exhibition but very much a part of everyday life. The deity or God is an important family member in the Bengali Hindu family. The lesser tendency of visiting temples regularly, as is evident in Table 3, asserts that the reception of religion continues to be the same in the 21st century. If we check out the popularity of deities in the Bengali household as per Table 4, we can see that Krishna, Shiva and Lakshmi are the most popular.

It might be observed that these deities, interestingly, are the most relatable ones. Krishna is worshipped in various forms – sometimes as the archetypal naughty child, sometimes
as the lover and sometimes as a
friend and guide. Shiva is the archetype of the ideal and most desirable husband. And Lakshmi, Chakrabarty notes, ‘…regarded as the Hindu god Vishnu’s wife… has for long been held up in popular Hinduism, and in the everyday pantheism of Hindu families, as the model of the Hindu wife, united in complete harmony with her husband (and his family) through willful submission, loyalty, devotion, and chastity.’



In this context, BJP’s propaganda of an exclusivist Hindutva based on a highly public demonstration of Hindu religious practices and emphatic chants of Jay Shree Ram failed to make a mark upon the electorates with Ram and his ardent follower Hanuman already being the least worshipped deities in Bengal. Even among the BJP voters, our study finds that only 5.9% are devotees of Ram and Hanuman. The failure of the Hindutva ideology to create a stir among the electorates can further be explained by a discussion of the public dimension of the religious factor of Bengali culture.

The 19th century Bengal Renaissance, apart from the various other modern/western ideas, thoroughly imbibed the notion of secularism and endeavoured to look for its roots in the traditional Bengali/Indian culture. As a result, the subaltern assimilatory religious philosophies of the Bhakti movement under the leadership of Sri Chaitanya and the Baul tradition came to be selectively reclaimed and appropriated into the mainstream bhadralok culture. These subaltern religious traditions were further blended strategically with certain aspects of the Vedic philosophy and western theology and hence emerged a kind of synthetic concept of religion based on secularism and tolerance. This concept emphasizes upon communal harmony – a peaceful coexistence of various faiths still retaining and recognizing the cultural uniqueness and eccentricities of each faith.



This ideology of secularism
fervently exists both in the secular intellectual discourses and the religious teachings of the time. The 19th century eminent Bengali religious figure Sri Ramkrishna Paramahansa emphasizes on the essential truth of all religious faiths and the same end they’re all directed to. Similarly, the middle class intellectuals of the time including Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam have considered humanity the highest religion and transcending all narrow religious boundaries they consider the ultimate end and aim of all religions to be directed towards the wholesome good of mankind.

The bhadralok leadership in the successful agitation against the proposed partition of Bengal, based on communal distinction in 1905, clearly asserts the strength of the ideals of communal harmony in Bengal. Rabindranath Tagore universalized the Hindu ritual of Rakhi Bandhan as the festival of universal brotherhood and a celebration of communal harmony. This trend seems to continue even in the 21st century as Table 3 suggests that religion intrudes the public space only during festivals.

From Table 4 it is found that Durga, Saraswati and Kali are not the most worshipped deities in Bengal even though the greatest festivals of Bengal centre on the annual worshipping of these deities. These contrary observations suggest that religious festivals become sarbojonin (for all the people) hence assuming a secular character in Bengal. Perhaps this substantiated Mamata Banerjee’s claim Dharma jar jar utsav sobar (religion is personal but festival is public) and culturally alienated the BJP further who promised to revamp the Durga and Saraswati pujas, which they felt were not enough religiously observed in Bengal.



The stern Hidutva ideology of the BJP found itself at odds with the essentially liberal tolerant connotations of religion in the Bengali public space. The BJP vainly tried to utilize the public grievances against the ruling AITC for its alleged Muslim appeasement to construct a rhetoric of Hinduism at stake in Bengal. However, its misplaced religious dispositions, by attempting to polarize the electorates along their religious identities, stirred the Bengali consciousness against it. While the majority of the respondents (about 57%) of the survey believed that the Mamata Banerjee government gives undue favour to Muslims, a sizeable 41.8% of the respondents still believed that the AITC is the best party to protect the interests of their religions. Besides, about 59% of the respondents believed that the ruling party has to protect the interests of the minority community even if the majority doesn’t like it.



In this context when the BJP tried to construct its image as the saviour of Hinduism in Bengal by constantly threatening that the AITC will turn Bengal into a ‘mini Pakistan’ and calling Mamata Banerjee Begum,11 it actually ended up threatening the traditional secular cultural ethos of Bengal. Hence, this narrative might have backfired so much that along with the Muslims for obvious reasons, a large bulk of the Hindus also turned against the BJP.12

 Instead of achieving the desired religious polarization it even legitimized the alleged Muslim appeasement of the AITC government to a significant extent. This complex phenomenon has finally been reflected in the electoral preferences of the respondents as is revealed by Table 5.



The Table clearly shows that in spite of believing that the Mamata Banerjee government gives undue advantage to the Muslims, more than one third of them still remained in favour of the AITC.

Notwithstanding such a secular cultural heritage, it is evident, as reveals Table 2, the BJP has garnered a significant support of the middle class. Can it be attributed to the characteristic ambivalence of the middle class? Or is it informed by the emerging cultural heterogeneity within the middle class itself? Here also the survey data seems to give us a direction.

Evidently, the AITC has garnered a huge support from the middle class in the greater Kolkata and its adjoining areas in South East Bengal. However, away from Kolkata, in the Northern and Southwestern regions, the picture gets reversed. It can be argued that the larger bulk of middle class votes in favour of the BJP came from the fringe areas of Bengal. Again, a significant portion of these votes for BJP came from the sporadic urban centres in these regions. The Election Commission of India data confirms that the BJP has emerged victorious in most of the district towns/ urban centers in these regions barring a few stray exceptions.



In this context the differences in electoral preferences of the urban middle class in a highly culturally contested election can be attributed to the perceived cultural differences within the urban middle class. The middle class both of Kolkata and these sporadic urban centres share exactly similar socio-economic attributes. The only difference is that the emerging urban middle class in the fringe areas doesn’t share the habitus of the dominant Kolkata centric bhadralok culture. Hence, the avowedly anti-BJP cultural and ideological campaigns (like ‘No Vote to BJP’, Nijeder Mawte Nijeder Gaan – ‘Our song in our terms’) led by the civil society rooted in the bhadralok culture failed to influence the middle class of these fringes in spite of being quite popular in and around Kolkata.

There is a new middle class emerging largely in post-independent Bengal sharing equal privileges of the Kolkata centric middle class and hence in the best position to challenge the hegemony of the dominant bhadralok culture. From their radically different electoral preferences from the Kolkata centric middle class, they seem to prioritize different socio- political and cultural concerns.



In the recent elections in some other states, the evolving nature of party competition is marked by a peculiar preference for BJP on the national plane and regional/non-BJP parties on the state level. The 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 Assembly election results in Bengal suggest that Bengal has followed the same pattern. The limits of religious polarization as has been observed in the 2021 Assembly election in Bengal, hints that the people’s mandate is still in favour of retaining the secular political space that has characterized Bengal for centuries. Finally, it remains to be seen if the differences in the electoral affinities of the two aforementioned segments of Bengali urban middle class might usher in a new dynamics in the society and politics of Bengal.



1. The Sankyuta Morcha comprised of Left, Congress and ISF could secure only one seat. Hence, though its vote share is mentioned throughout, the analysis of this paper has been restricted between the two main contenders – the AITC and the BJP.

2. Courtney Ahmed, Deconstructing the Moment of Representation with Spivak and Derrida. Thesis submitted at the Department of Philosophy, Haverford College, 27 April, 2017, https://scholarshipz.tricolib.brynmawr.
1&isAllowed=y, accessed on 17.05.2021.  It deals with Spivak’s advocacy of strategic essentialism as a way for marginalized and excluded groups to achieve discursive power.

3. Bengal Government, Report of the Bengal District Administration Committee 1913-1914. Bengal Secretariat Press, Calcutta, 1914. J.H. Broomfield, Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth-Century Bengal. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968. Marcus F. Franda, Radical Politics in West Bengal. MIT. Press, Cambridge, 1971. Partha Chatterjee, The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997. Jyotiprasad Chatterjee and Suprio Basu, Left Front and After: Understanding the Dynamics of Poriborton in West Bengal. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2020.

4. Marcus F. Franda, op. cit., p. 7

5. Partha Chatterjee, ‘Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonialized Women: The Contest in India’, American Ethnologist 16(4), November 1989, pp. 622-633.

6. Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?’, Representations 37, Winter 1992, pp. 1-26.

7. Dipesh Chakrabarty, op. cit., p. 9

8. Jyotiprasad Chatterjee and Suprio Basu, Left Front and After: Understanding the Dynamics of Poriborton in West Bengal. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2020.

9. Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?’ Representations 37, Winter 1992, pp. 1-26.

10. Dipesh Chakrabarty, op. cit., 1992.

11. The Tribune, ‘EC lets off BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari With a Light Rap for “Mini-Pakistan” Remark’, 13 April 2021, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/ec-lets-off-bjps-suvendu-adhikari-with-a-light-rap-for-mini-pakistan-remark-238604, accessed on 18.05.2021.

12. Suhas Palshikar, Shreyas Sardesai, Jyotiprasad Chatterjee and Suprio Basu , ‘West Bengal Assembly Elections: The Limits to Polarisation in Bengal’, The Hindu, 6 May 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/elections/west-bengal-assembly/csds-lokniti-survey-the-limits-to-polarisation-in-bengal/article34494009.ece, accessed on 10.05.2021.