Us vs them: the battle for state culture in recent assembly polls

The competition was between an ‘outsider’ who is threatening that which is valuable in the state, and an ‘insider’ who is going to protect it. This is how it worked in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala.

We are missing the point. While it is true that the electoral results in the four states of Kerala, Assam, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal must be explained in terms of state-specific factors — such as their welfare schemes, or the quality of their party organisation, or the nature of their campaign, or the financial resources at their disposal, or perhaps the image of the person who is leading the charge — I wish to argue here that there is a common explanation that connects all four results. I also wish to suggest that it is a pointer to the new phase that we have entered of democratic politics in India.

While it is true that Kerala is very different from West Bengal and Assam shares little with Tamil Nadu, the political outcome in each state, I believe, can be read using a culturalist lens. This election was won in each state because the winning party captured more cultural aspects of the state than its competitors were able to. The winner won because they were seen by a diverse voting public as representing the cultural self of the state, its asmita. The competitor, in contrast, was seen by the voting majority as a threat to this cultural representation. It was a political force that threatened to make one less Assamese, less Malayalee, less Tamilian or less Bengali. Although this claim appears very fuzzy, as indeed it is, since cultural aspects are always fuzzy, the competition was presented by the winner as that between an “outsider” who is threatening that which is valuable in the state, and an “insider” who is going to protect it. The outsider, therefore, needed to be defeated. This happened in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

Before I discuss each state separately, I have to make one further comment. The growth of the RSS family of organisations in the last decade has changed the political discourse in India. In earlier times, our analysis kept moving in and out of four discourses — development, state-building, democracy and nationalism. But now, with the ascendency of the RSS, cultural nationalism has come to dominate the other three discourses. Cultural nationalism, as Hindutva, has come to be the measure of national politics. The unintended consequence of such cultural nationalism, which we have missed, is the emergence of culture as central to politics, defining its dynamics. Such cultural expression, however, is not always national. It is often local and state-specific. It offers several registers around which the outsider and insider can be constructed. It has many subtle elements known to the insider but lost on the outsider. For example, taunting Mamata with the “Didi-o-didi” chant was deeply offensive to the ordinary Bengali who calls everyone, of all classes, either didi or dada. So to mock someone, let alone a leader of her stature, with “didi-o-didi” was perceived as an outrage, particularly, by the women of Bengal.

Bringing culture into the centre stage of politics, as the basis of perception and as the grounds for action, has produced three levels of cultural politics. The first and most apparent is cultural nationalism, articulated by the RSS as Hindutva. Here, one national Hindu identity is sought to be constructed and made dominant, subsuming and submerging the diversity of local expressions of what is regarded as Indic civilisation. The second is the state level of culture. At this level, culture is seen as having a long history that acquires a new momentum with the development of federal India. After the formation of a state, its culture develops distinct characteristics and a distinct trajectory of ownership by local elites. Hence Tamil culture is different from Telugu and Kannadiga culture and Bengali culture is different from Assamese and Odiya culture. Cultural boundaries form, and even though these are fuzzy, they distinguish one from the other. The third level is local, village or group culture, such as Jat or Yadav or Lingayat cultural expressions. This bringing of culture into politics has, however, not produced the seamless connection between all three levels as the RSS had hoped. In fact, these recent state elections have shown three relationships between Hindutva and state culture. It is sometimes in alignment, as in Assam, sometimes in subtle conflict, as in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and sometimes in strong opposition, as in West Bengal.

In Assam, the BJP’s campaign was all about Assamese civilisation being threatened by the Bengali other (described as the Bangladeshi Muslim). It was a contest of “65 per cent vs 35 per cent”. This was a strategy promoted by Himanta Biswa Sarma, who also stitched up alliances with Bodo and other communities seen as part of the larger cultural community of Hindutva. In this narrative, Assamese culture, even that of the smaller communities, was consistent with the larger Hindu civilisation of Assam now being represented by Hindutva. This was under threat by the Muslim adversary represented by AIDUF. Culture here was pre-eminent, but it worked in tandem with other factors such as welfare and party organisation.

This seamlessness, however, was not present in Tamil Nadu. Kalaiyarasan A and colleagues have argued that the AIADMK and BJP alliance promoted the idea of the “Hindu Tamil”, in opposition to the idea of the “Dravidian Tamil”. This was challenged by the DMK, which presented the BJP as the outsider who threatens with their alien construct of Tamilness. So, even though the AIADMK had delivered on many welfarist schemes and provided fair governance, the DMK was able to portray the AIADMK alliance with the BJP as the beginning of the entry of the outsider who was unappreciative of the Tamil cultural world and was trying to subsume it under a larger north Indian Hindu identity. Tamil cultural distinctiveness was under threat.

The Kerala cultural story was even more subtle and was hence ignored by most commentators. Culture is nonetheless present in the election outcome. Since the fight was between the UDF and LDF, both of whom had embraced a culturally plural agenda, the BJP’s exclusivism cut little ice. The BJP’s push was ignored because both main contenders were clear that it threatened the cultural ecology of Kerala where Christian, Muslim and Hindu lived in a kind of “steady-state”, to borrow a term from physics. This was a cultural rejection of the BJP’s strategy.

But it is West Bengal where the conflict between the national level and the state level of culture plays out the best. Didi met the BJP’s cultural charge, outplaying it at every level with her own cultural resources. If they shouted “Jai Shri Ram”, she countered with “Joy Bangla”. When they accused her of appeasement, she chanted the “Chandi path”. When they inducted film stars into their campaign, she gave film stars tickets. If they charged her with being chauvinistic, she charged them with being disrespectful of Bangla culture. Her campaign even accused the Home Minister of desecrating the hallowed chair of Rabindranath Tagore when he visited Visva Bharati. When the BJP launched a meme war against her, she responded with Bangla songs and memes. Remember “khela hobe”. It was measure for measure. The second Bengali Renaissance, but this time at the folk level. Bangla asmita was under threat by these arrogant outsiders. It was time to fight back. Didi donned the Number 10 jersey and began to play. Dribble. Long shot. A high ball. A 25 yarder. The people loved every moment of it. A Number 10 can play the ball anywhere. She did. Her wheelchair was Maradona’s “hand of God” goal. Since in the shakha they do not play football, the pracharaks will not understand the power of the Number 10 Jersey.

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 6, 2021 under the title ‘The culture khela’. The writer is the DD Kosambi Visiting Professor, Goa University. Views are personal

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