As the Lok Sabha constituencies in and around Kolkata get ready to vote on Monday, a debate is raging in political circles over the issue of identity politics, particularly regarding the non-Bengali-speaking population.
There has always been a subtle divide between Bengalis and non-Bengalis and this has become explicit with parties raising the pitch on voters with their roots in Rajasthan, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. Interestingly, a majority of these electors speak the language of the land and share the cultural ethos of West Bengal. However, vote-bank politics is increasingly targeting the “Hindi-speaking” electorate.
Addressing a rally last month, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi accused Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee of differentiating between Bengalis and the people of other States residing in West Bengal, and at the same time rolling out the red carpet to “Bangladeshis.”
Mr. Modi’s remarks were a reference to her comment describing “non-Bengalis” as atithi or “guests.” While she is worried that “non-Bengalis” are moving away from her party with the BJP’s entry, Ms. Banerjee claimed that she used the word atithi to highlight the fact that the State had always “respected guests.”
Sreerampore and Howrah, on the western banks of the Hooghly, constituencies where non-Bengali, Hindu voters are a factor, went to the polls on April 30. Conservative estimates suggest these constituencies have more than 25 per cent non-Bengali voters.
On the eastern banks of the river, Barrackpore presents an interesting contest where candidates from all major parties are non-Bengalis. The CPI(M) has fielded Subhasini Ali against Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool and R.K. Handa of the BJP. While there is a debate in the CPI(M) over bringing in Ms. Ali from U.P., many feel the party needed a “Hindi-speaking” face in the area. The adjoining Dum Dum is the only constituency where the BJP has won twice and secured over 50 per cent votes.
Moreover, many influential Hindi-speaking legislators of the Assembly came from these constituencies. So wooing the “Hindi-speaking community” there makes sense for the BJP.
Social activist Sabir Ahmed, who has worked with rickshaw pullers, slum dwellers and other unorganised sector workers, said that historically “non-Bengalis” voted on class lines. By uniting such communities, the Left parties managed to control any language, caste or religion driven politics in the State. Eventually, the working class — traditional supporters of the Left — shifted their allegiance to the Trinamool, thus creating space for politics on various identity lines.
“As the rhetoric of identity based on language is getting sharper, the division of class is getting blurred,” Mr. Ahmed explains. On the other hand, the business community has supported anti-Left parties, he said.
As the rhetoric of identity based on language gets sharper, division of class is getting blurred, says a social activist