India: Surfeit of slogans and sub-nationalism in Bengal

The Daily Star June 08, 2019

Trinamool Congress has decided to undertake a door-to-door campaign with the message how Bengal and Bangla culture are different from that BJP is trying to project. Pallab Bhattacharya

POST-PARLIAMENTARY elections, a battle over sub-nationalism along ideological lines is on in West Bengal between Trinamool Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party. That battle, accompanied by the din created by new slogans, comes after months of bitter war of words in the run up to and during the election campaign. The latest bout of the battle has been in the making since a bust of 19th century Bengal renaissance stalwart Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was broken during a road show by BJP President Amit Shah in Kolkata a few days before the final phase of polling in parliamentary election on May 19. After the election results were declared on May 23, the daily war of words has taken the form of slogan-coinage, Bangla cultural and independence struggle icons and Hindu deities.

It all began with BJP supporters, emboldened by the party’s impressive performance in the polls, confronting Trinamool Congress Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with “Jai Shri Ram” slogans at least on two occasions, which infuriated her so much that she came out of her car and snapped back at the slogan-shouting people. Trinamool Congress responded to this by first coming out with “Jai Bangla” slogan. Trinamool Congress has also decided to undertake a door-to-door campaign with the message how Bengal and Bangla culture are different from that BJP is trying to project. In short, Trinamool Congress appears to have decided its fight with BJP as a “Bengali versus non-Bengali” issue. 

The main reason behind Trinamool’s strategy seems to be the outrage that had followed the vandalising of Vidyasagar’s bust. Mamata’s party promptly adopted a strident Bangla sub-nationalism stance as all Trinamool Congress leaders, including the Chief Minister, changed their social media picture with the portrait of Vidyasagar. The party also drove home the point that many BJP leaders in West Bengal did not speak Bangla. West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chattopadhyay announced the state government would install the statues of Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore and Ashutosh Mukherjee in Kolkata. It seems to have helped Trinamool Congress in the last round of voting in the nine parliamentary constituencies in and around Kolkata all of which were won by the party. One of the allegations made by Trinamool Congress soon after the bust vandalising incident was that those involved in it were from “outside” West Bengal.

Later, both BJP and Trinamool Congress made changes in their strategies with contrasting objectives. First, Trinamool Congress added “Jai Hind”, which has a pan-India appeal, to “Jai Bangla” slogan apparently to insulate it from being accused of indulging in Bangla chauvinism. Second, BJP added “Jai Maa Kaali” to its slogan of “Jai Shri Ram” hoping this would give the party wider acceptance to Hindus in West Bengal and to counter Trinamool Congress’ Bangla sub-nationalism plank. As part of bolstering its Bangla cultural theme with a pan-India touch. 

Also, Mamata Banerjee and other leaders of her party recently changed their profile by including the pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh to those of Vidyasagar, Matangini Hazra, Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. In a bid to ward off the charge by BJP of her being anti-majority community, Mamata in a Facebook post also said she does not have a problem with the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” but objected to the manner in which it is being used by BJP workers to “create unrest in West Bengal by mixing religion with politics”.

What needs to be pointed out in this context is that Trinamool Congress, like some other anti-BJP parties, have resorted to what is being dubbed as “soft Hindutva” in countering the BJP. One just has to recall how Trinamool leaders and workers had in recent years taken out processions to mark the Ram Navami religious festival to match those of BJP. Trinamool leaders also make it a point to remind the people how long and wide Red Road passing through the Maidan in central Kolkata, which has for long been used for offering of Eid prayers every year, is also witnessing for the last few years a cultural pageantry on the occasion of immersion of the idols of deities at the culmination of Durga Puja festival.

The race for the Bengali mind is certain to heat up in the months ahead of fresh assembly elections in West Bengal due in 2021. Elections in India are won not by developmental issues alone. There have to be some add-on factors like nationalism and sub-nationalism. Implicit in this is the recognition that the debate on nationalism is far from settled even 71 years after independence. I am reminded of my five and half years stay in Dhaka in 1990s, a time which was roiled by a similar debate over Awami League’s Bengali nationalism and BNP’s Bangladeshi nationalism. Many in Bangladesh had rued that the issue of nationalism remained unresolved even after so many years of liberation.

It might be naive to expect a quick resolution to the debate on nationalism or sub-nationalism in a sharp polarised political atmosphere in an open and pluralistic democracy. It is quite possible that the idea of nationalism is a work in progress. But more importantly, it reflects the social and political metamorphosis taking place in a society.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.'
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