“When a disaster or pandemic comes, a plan should be kept ready. For showing a future path to economic development, we have set up a global advisory board to frame the coronavirus response policy in Bengal. I want good people on the board and Abhijit Banerjee will head the team,” said Mamata Banerjee. Abhijit is the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at MIT. He shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics with his wife, Esther Duflo. She is professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT where she is also the co-founder and co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Swarup Sarker, a former regional director of the WHO, is also on the roadmap team.
Another India is not only possible; she is on her way. Many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet COVID-night, if you listen very carefully, you can hear her breathing. The most high-value contest in India’s state elections is under way in West Bengal where Mamata Banerjee is Chief Minister. Mamata who is better known as “didi” or elder sister, is the firebrand leader of the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC).
She frames the challenge as a contest between insiders (Bengalis) and outsiders (the largely Hindi-speaking Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)). The fray for control of the THA in Tobago is no different from the campaign Mamata launched outside a “Chinese Kali Mandir” in Kolkata’s Chinatown in Tangra. “Didi, O Mamata didi. You say we are outsiders. But the land of Bengal doesn’t regard anyone as an outsider,” says Modi. “Nobody is an outsider here.” Tipping points create indispensability even as we recall the dim adage of Charles de Gaulle that “The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.” Churchill’s understanding of Nazism and Lincoln’s oratory on the need and purpose of the Civil War made them irreplaceable.
Mamata was cautioned for appealing to voters not to let their ballots get divided after being swayed by the “the devil (shataan) person” financed by the BJP. Mamata is tapping into, at once, nativist and federalist sentiments. The “othering” of a powerful federal party is grounded in India’s contested politics of federalism. Mamata has also accused the BJP of trying to bring “narrow, discriminatory and divisive politics into Bengal”. West Bengal, a state of 92 million people, has never been ruled by Modi’s party. A feisty Mamata stormed to power in 2011, after dislodging a Communist-led government that ruled the state for 34 years. Since then, she has ruled uninterrupted, and her party currently holds 211 of 295 seats. The TMC has no ideological underpinnings. It relies principally on the cult of personality of a charismatic leader, whose supporters call her the “fire goddess”.
A win for the BJP in Bengal in state elections where a third of the voters are Muslims will extinguish any hope that India’s largely rag-tag opposition can take on Modi’s well lubricated machinery in 2024. A Mamata victory positions her as a national leader who is likely to emerge as a consensus opposition leader. No other opposition leader has been able to mount a successful narrative against Modi. The fray for Bengal is old. Looking at the beginning of Bengali literature, it is clear that since the tenth century, there has been Muslim-Hindu unity. The main translating initiatives of the Ramayana and Mahabharata came from the Muslim King of Bengal.
British rule of India started in Bengal in 1757 in the Battle of Plassey where the army of the British East India Company defeated Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah. The French East India Company had similar designs and from 1746, the rival companies fought the Carnatic Wars for advantage in India. Siraj ud-Daulah adopted a pro-French policy and overran British trading posts. His fall was arranged.
The Bengal of Netaji Bose, who studied at Cambridge, and poets like Kazi Nazrul Islam and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore exude an inclination to secularism. Tagore’s ode, “Amar Sonar Bangla” became the national anthem of Bangladesh. Kazi Islam once wrote “Above everything, a human being and there is nothing above that”. Hence, India’s Citizenship Amendment Bill has left Muslims perplexed, and Hindus supporting secularism bothered. Muslims have been traditionally poorer than Hindus in Bengal. For Bose, what was needed is justice in dealing with it, in looking after those at the rougher end of the pyramid of justice. It was clear to Bose that some of the concerns with Muslims came from the same reason as the concerns for the Namasudra. Bose believed that he and Nehru could make history together. But Nehru could not see his destiny without Gandhi. Bose and Ghandi clashed.
Bose’s shadowy “disappearance” and a tower of babble after ten investigations precipitated a game of brinkmanship between Mamata and Modi. Bose once supported Gandhi, but became an intimate of Hitler and Tojo. His daughter Anita Bose Pfaff wants DNA testing of the ashes at Renkoji Temple in Tokyo to resolve the mystery surrounding her father’s death. She has asked Modi for institutional memory to be buttressed by fresh perspective using inescapable inflections in history. Mamata wants a cenotaph.