The Degeneration Of Political Discourse In Bengal Mirrors The State’s Economic And Social Decline

Jaideep Mazumdar

Feb 06, 2024, 02:39 PM | Updated 03:06 PM IST

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

A colloquial and odious term, allegedly used by Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has triggered another political spat in the state. 

Banerjee, while addressing her party colleagues at a demonstration to demand disbursal of central funds to the state last weekend, mouthed an abusive term which is considered as very base and unacceptable among bhadraloks (the genteel middle-class Bengalis).

That set off a round of condemnation with senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders terming her angry speech (see the video embedded in this post on X by Suvendu Adhikari) as “crass,” “filthy” and “derogatory.”

Adhikari wrote on X: “The language used is not only indecorous to say the least but absolutely unbecoming for a lady. Sadly, it's the misfortune of the People of WB to have someone as a CM who doesn't understand dignity and decorum”. 

BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya’s post on X read: “Meet Mamata Banerjee, the uncouth, foul mouthed, abusive Chief Minister of West Bengal.” Malviya translated what Banerjee said: “Everyday Modi ji is saying..I am making pucca houses for you, baal…you live in a palace but you are depriving poor people of a roof over their heads…”

'Baal' is a colloquial Bengali term for pubic hair. Malviya wrote: “Can she get away with this kind of sexist language just because she is a woman? What if she gets it back in the language she speaks? Will she then pull out the woman victimhood card? Mamata Banerjee is a disgrace. Bengal doesn’t deserve her as Chief Minister.”

But while it is well known that Mamata Banerjee is mercurial and is often abusive and foul-mouthed, it must be said that she isn’t the only one guilty of such transgressions. 

BJP leaders, including state BJP chief Sukanta Majumdar, his predecessor Dilip Ghosh and even Adhikari himself have been guilty of using foul and abusive language against political rivals like Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi. 

The use of foul and abusive language against political opponents actually cuts across political parties in Bengal. 

It is not as if the standard of political discourse in Bengal has suddenly degenerated in recent years. It has been happening for the past few decades, especially after the Left Front came to power. 

The era of bhadralok politics came to an end in Bengal in 1977 with Left icon Jyoti Basu becoming the Chief Minister of the state. 

Though Basu was, by all accounts, a bhadralok himself — he was a barrister who got his law degree from London and belonged to the landed gentry — his fellow-travellers in the CPI(M) were largely from the subaltern classes who deliberately exercised little control over their speeches and pronouncements. 

In fact, Basu himself was not above reproach at times. For instance, his persistent refusal to call Mamata Banerjee by her name — he insisted on referring to her as “that woman” — did not do him any good. 

Save for Basu, and a handful of Marxist worthies like (former Lok Sabha speaker) Somnath Chatterjee, all the other CPI(M) functionaries were foul-mouthed, abusive and crass. Their speeches were vitriolic and peppered with pejoratives and abuses directed at their enemies, real and imagined. 

Like Basu, his successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was also considered to be urbane and a bhadralok. But, again, he did not, or could not, exercise any control over what his party colleagues said in public. 

Biman Bose, the Left Front chairman during Bhattacharjee’s tenure, took the cake in being odious, and for his use of foul language. But it was Promode Dasgupta, another Left icon who was the Left Front chairman till his death in 1982, who revelled in being abrasive, vicious and even revolting at times.  

Communist cadres, who looked up to the likes of Dasgupta and Bose as demi-gods, enthusiastically emulated and amplified their crass behaviour and words. 

In fact, most of them viewed the bhadralok as the bourgeois — the class enemy. And hence, they took a lot of pride in being the anti-bhadralok. The lumpenisation of the political space in Bengal was only the natural consequence of this phenomena. 

Once Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011, all pretensions of being genteel and urbane were shed with alacrity. Having spent a lot of her time in politics battling Left goons on the streets of Kolkata, Banerjee had to speak their language and emulate their tactics in order to counter them. 

Banerjee had never aspired to be sophisticated or suave. She consciously cultivated the image of a mass leader who, in her simple cotton saree and rubber sandals, spoke and behaved like the underclass or the subaltern.

But another phenomenon — one that ran parallel to the emergence of the Left in Bengal — also contributed majorly to the degeneration of political discourse in the state. 

And that was the economic decline of Bengal. The rise of the left in Bengal from the late 1960s heralded the gradual economic decline of what was till then one of the richest provinces in the country. 

Militant trade unionism, along with the turmoil and anarchy instigated by Naxals from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, triggered a flight of capital from Bengal. 

Entrepreneurs, industrialists and businessmen made a beeline out of Bengal, and corporate houses shifted their headquarters to other states, mostly Maharashtra and Gujarat. 

That, naturally, resulted in a severe loss of job opportunities in the state. And a brain drain was the inevitable consequence of that. 

Bengal’s best and brightest, and even its mediocre, started leaving the state for better education and jobs in the rest of the country. Subsequently, only those with average and below-average faculties stayed back. 

A social decline followed. The brain drain continues to this day, thanks to absence of opportunities in the state and also the hostile political and social environment that is antithetical to the smooth conduct of trade, commerce and inflow of capital.

The brain drain from Bengal starts right from the middle-school level. The meritorious leave the state, and those whose parents cannot afford to send them out wait till they earn their degrees to seek higher education or jobs outside the state. 

All the state is left with are mostly those with below-average faculties. Thus, while Bengalis in the rest of the country and the world do quite well for themselves and are often celebrated as achievers, most of the ones who remain behind in Bengal are notorious for their lack of drive, slothfulness, baseness and lack of merit. 

This is also the reason why Bengal witnesses acute political violence. The ugly political discourse in the state reflects, and further intensifies, political intolerance in the state.

Political rivals treat each other as enemies, and that results in hatred towards each other. This hatred often manifests itself in violence.

While referring to brain drain, the lakhs of unskilled and semi-skilled who leave the state every year in search of low-paying menial jobs are obviously discounted.

It is no wonder, then, that the politicians who represent the masses in Bengal exhibit the same qualities as the dregs of the state. 

That explains why Mamata Banerjee has no qualms about using baal while referring to the Prime Minister, or Suvendu Adhikari describing Rahul Gandhi as a gaandu (watch the video in this post on X).  

What’s more, they get away with such foul language. That in itself speaks volumes about the state of society, and polity, in Bengal.

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