14 Nov AiroAV Announced Is social engineering aiding the rise of BJP in Bengal?
The concept of ‘social engineering’, introduced into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by Govindacharya during the heydays of Lal Krishna Advani, remained foreign to Bengal for long. But things maybe changing fast – if they haven’t changed already – in the run up to the 2021 Assembly polls.
The BJP first successfully executed its social engineering idea in Uttar Pradesh in the early 1990s when Kalyan Singh, hailing from the OBC Lodh community, was made chief minister. Simply put it meant giving power and prominence to backward castes (OBCs) or Dalits – those at the ‘bottom’ – and adding their votes to swell its already existing vote base, primarily among the upper castes or those at the ‘top’ of the caste ladder.
Ever since, the BJP has tried out with forms of this experiment in other states too. However, it stayed away from trying it in Bengal. But it now appears that a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-enabled social engineering experiment could be one of the major causes for the BJP’s success in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the state.
It is quite interesting that no political party could detect the factor till Prashant Kishor, the political strategist hired by the TMC, pointed it out. And he has asked the TMC to take immediate counter measures, reportedly.
Kishor may be on to something as far as his assessment of the changing socio-political reality in the state is concerned. The ‘saffronisation’ of ‘secular’ Bengali society never looked like a sufficient enough reason to explain the BJP’s spectacular rise in 2019 – it won 18 out of 42 seats of Bengal. Neither could it be attributed to ‘Modi magic’ alone – even after Modi came to power in 2014, the BJP could secure just 10 per cent of the votes in 2016 Assembly election. How, then, did its vote share suddenly rise to 40 per cent in 2019?
Even if we were to go by the reasoning that the polarisation of anti-TMC votes caused the change, it does not answer some pertinent questions. For example, why did voters suddenly reject the once-mighty Left, which, unlike the BJP, had never joined hands with the TMC? And why was the BJP wave not to be found in Greater Calcutta and its neighbouring constituencies? If we factor in social engineering we have some explanations – the Left is largely identified with the upper castes and social engineering is verily a rural phenomenon.
The truth is, while Bengal is free from the curse of caste violence, it is not free of caste-based domination. The three forward castes – Brahamin, Vaidya and Kayastha – constituting at the most one-fifth of the population – dominate almost all walks of life from politics to literature to art and science. People like Ramkinkar Baij (the statues of Yaksha and Yakshi who guard the RBI building in Delhi are his works) are just exceptions. Interestingly, the non-forward castes did not harbour any grievance against the status quo. This phenomenon cannot be easily explained and is perhaps the subject of deeper sociological analysis.
Coming back to the BJP-RSS strategy, it perhaps took a leaf out of Mamata Banerjee’s wooing of the Matua community (a Vaishnavite religious sect of the Dalit Namosudra caste). After the BJP vote share went up to 18 per cent in the 2014 elections, it is possible it saw the benefits Mamata had reaped by forging a proximity with the family of Harichand Thakur, founder of the Matua Mahasangh. This large community can influence the electoral outcome in five out of 42 Lok Sabha seats and about 50 out of 294 assembly constituencies of Bengal.
Initially, it took two steps to fulfil a long-term goal. The first was to make Dilip Ghosh, an RSS pracharak, reportedly belonging to OBC Sadgope caste, the state BJP president. This was done in 2015 to send out a message to the non-forward castes. Besides this, a large number of Ekal Vidyalayas (school with a single teacher) were opened in remote areas dominated by tribals and Dalits. More than 10,000 such schools have become operational in Bengal according to some estimates. The teachers are all RSS pracharaks or people close to them and the students reportedly answer the roll call in these schools with ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
These two initial steps helped the RSS open a large number of shakhas in rural Bengal. And then, the Matua community, quite a few of whom are refugees from Bangladesh, were offered the promise of citizenship when the Citizenship Act comes into effect. Other Backward or Dalit/tribal communities were also urged to assert themselves against locally-dominant castes (like the Mahatos in Jungle Mahal) or the traditional upper castes.
Moreover, RSS pracharaks and BJP workers would at times stay in the houses of the downtrodden and initiate them into identity politics. The cumulative effect of all these was a surge in the BJP’s votes in 2019. However, there still exists a three per cent gap in votes between BJP (40 per cent) and TMC (43 per cent). The RSS-BJP could try to bridge it by projecting Dilip Ghosh as the chief ministerial face.
Whether social engineering can catapult the BJP to power in Bengal will be tested eighteen months later. But now that Mamata Banerjee is aware of it, she will surely try her best to reverse the trend. As far as conventional political combat is concerned she is still the same old ‘tigress’. Six months after the Lok Sabha election, all the municipalities the BJP grabbed after Lok Sabha polls have slipped back to the TMC. And Didi is in complete control of her flock despite the BJP’s bombastic threat of decimating the TMC through defections. But social engineering is not conventional politics. It will be interesting to see whether the ‘Didi’ of Bengal can fight back.
(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of books including, A Naxal Story. He is a deputy editor at the Bengali daily, Aajkal)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.)