India: A toxic blend of Bollywood and politics

The Daily Star       September 19, 2020

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Seldom has a Bengali actress of Bollywood roiled the politics of three Indian states—Bihar, Maharashtra and West Bengal—for contrasting reasons. That is precisely what is happening after Rhea Chakraborty was sent to jail after being charged in alleged drugs-related cases linked to the death of her friend and actor Sushant Singh Rajput. One has not seen such a toxic blend of Bollywood and politics before.

Bihar and Maharashtra were the first to be hit by the row over Sushant’s death and Rhea’s friendship with him before the flutter extended to West Bengal on September 9. The political dimension of the controversy can hardly be missed due to two main reasons. First, Bihar, ruled by regional Chief Minister Nitish Kumar-led outfit Janata Dal (United) heading the alliance that has the Bharatiya Janata Party in it, sees Sushant, who hails from Patna, the state’s capital city, as the “son of the soil” while viewing Rhea as the “villain of the piece.” Rhea has denied any wrongdoing and retracted her confessional statement given to the Narcotics Control Bureau which is probing the drug angle.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was instrumental in asking the BJP-led federal Indian government to let the Central Bureau of Investigation take over the Sushant Singh death case from the Mumbai police after the late actor’s family filed a First Information Report in Patna against Rhea. The BJP’s Bihar unit released “Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput” posters and banners and the Nitish Kumar government sought to take the credit for the transfer of the Sushant case to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Later, two more federal agencies, the Enforcement Directorate and the Narcotics Control Bureau, were also deployed to probe possible money laundering and drug peddling aspects of the Sushant-Rhea saga. All this contributed to turning the case into a high-profile one that is getting unprecedented media attention, a part of which, according to some, is nothing short of a “media trial” even before the charge sheet in the case has been filed.

Secondly, in Maharashtra, the BJP’s long-standing estranged ally, the Shiv Sena, shares power with the Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar, and the Congress and the BJP are the main opposition. The Maharashtra government has defended the conduct of the probe by the police in Mumbai into Sushant’s death and refuted the BJP’s allegations of weak investigation.

The controversy over Sushant’s death and his relationship with Rhea had not caused even a ripple in political circles in West Bengal until September 9, mainly because the leaders of ruling Trinamool and the BJP’s Bengal unit have so far refrained from commenting on the issue and responding to Rhea Chakraborty and the outrageous social media trolls about Bengali women being “gold diggers” and being into “black magic.” But the scenario changed when Congress party lawmaker from the state, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, took to Twitter recently and highlighted Rhea Chakraborty’s identity as a “Bengali Brahmin” while condemning her arrest. According to Kolkata media reports, Rhea’s family has its roots in Purulia district with an ancestral home at Bagmundi. Purulia shares a border with Jharkhand, which was once part of Bihar.

Chowdhury left no one in doubt about his decision to use the Bengal sub-nationalism card by using Rhea’s identity to counter the BJP’s plank of nationalism. Chowdhury’s intention was further confirmed a few days later when the Congress took out a rally in Kolkata on September 12 in support of Rhea. Picking up from where Chowdhury had left off from his previous Twitter post on Rhea, the Congress’ state unity on September 12 posted another comment on the micro-blogging platform: “Political conspiracy and vindictive behaviour against Rhea Chakraborty, the daughter of Bengal, will not be tolerated.” In another proof—if one was needed—of the Congress plan to play up the identity politics involving Rhea, the party also let it be known that the rally was taken out on the instructions of Chowdhury.

However, soon after Chowdhury waded into the sub-nationalism theme, Trinamool Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) too joined efforts to weave a “Bengali pride” narrative, with their leaders Saugata Roy and Sujan Chakrabarty respectively attacking the BJP for making a Bengali woman the “soft target.” Understandably, the BJP in West Bengal refused to be drawn into the Rhea-centric sub-nationalism discourse, apparently because of its high stakes in Bihar and Maharashtra.

The use of Bengali sub-nationalism is nothing new in West Bengal. The Trinamool Congress had done this from time to time in the past to checkmate the BJP, most tellingly during parliamentary elections in the state last year in the wake of the destruction of the statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in a college in Kolkata. It had paid off handsomely as the Mamata Banerjee-led party swept all nine Lok Sabha seats, which had gone to polls in the final phase in May. Mamata has, on more than one occasion, said that Bengal should be ruled by leaders of the state, in an apparent dig at the presence of a number of senior leaders of the BJP from outside the state who are in charge of party affairs in the state.

How potent is the sub-nationalism card going to be as a political weapon in the coming assembly elections? It may be used to blunt the growing criticism of the governance record of a ruling party, be it in Bihar or West Bengal. The Congress putting the focus on Rhea Chakraborty’s “Bengali Brahmin” identity is only expected to add to the sub-nationalism plank, much like the hype in Bihar over Sushant as the “son of the soil.” But it remains to be seen if a party like the Congress, with national footprints and stakes beyond West Bengal, and the CPI(M), which claims to espouse socialism, can sustain the sub-nationalism campaign.

It is easier for a regional Indian party to quickly resort to sub-nationalism because its support base and political activities do not go beyond the borders of a state. There is recognition in both the Congress and the CPI(M) that for parties with political and electoral stakes outside the frontiers of West Bengal and imbued with a national vision, it becomes very tough to carry on with the sub-nationalism theme in a country with such varied linguistic, ethnic and religious diversities.

Given the political sabre-rattling over the Sushant-Rhea case, one hopes it does not influence the law enforcing agencies from discharging their duties in the conduct of their probe.

 

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.

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