Mamata as the Subaltern: Two Views

On Saturday, May 28, 2016 10:27 PM, "Sukla Sen sukla.sen [IHRO]" <IHRO> wrote:



Mamata Banerjee is the perfect realisation of the Left’s class
politics – and its worst fears

A second term as chief minister for the Trinamool leader is unlikely
to blunt the class prejudice she faces.

an hour ago
Sohini Chattopadhyay

Sometime near the close of April, as the punishing election campaign
in Bengal wound into its last stretch, a joke on WhatsApp made its way
around Kolkata. It showed a picture of a woman scouring dishes on the
ground, her sari hitched up to her knees, a pair of conspicuously

white hawai chappals visible on her feet. The face of the woman was
morphed to show Trinamool Congress chairperson and soon-to-be second
time chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. The text read, “After 19 May,
let us know if you need help" with the dishes.

This alleged joke was forwarded, consumed and shared with glee. It was
in response to a comment that Banerjee had made at a rally in Kolkata:
“If you think I have done wrong, please give me two slaps. If you say,
I am ready to come and wash your dishes too, but it pinches when you
call me a thief."

The joke here is that Banerjee was viewed as having admitted to what
the upper middle class in Kolkata has been saying about her for some
years now: She deserves to be a maid. That is her place, no more. What
a shame that she holds an important public office, what a shame that
she has a mandate to be there. See what happens when you give everyone
the right to vote?

A WhatsApp message with this morphed photo of Mamata Banerjee did the
rounds of Kolkata in April. The text reads: “After 19 May, let us know
if you need help [with the dishes].”

A WhatsApp message with this morphed photo of Mamata Banerjee did the
rounds of Kolkata in April. The text reads: “After 19 May, let us know
if you need help [with the dishes].”

Loaded with layers of classism, racism and misogyny, the joke shows
how much the middle class disregards the labour that props up its
homes, offices, and the economy itself. Witness the panic in any
middle class home the day their domestic staff is absent. The
difficulty of finding good help is perhaps the most common
conversation topic in affluent homes everywhere in India, not only in

‘Jhee class’

Class runs through the discourse on Banerjee like a fever of loathing.
Or admiration, if you’re looking from the other side.

The term used often to describe her in Kolkata today is "jhee class"
or maid class. This is a reference that can be heard across class
categories, whether in drawing room conversations of the elite, or
street banter, for instance, among the security guards at the
Alimuddin Street office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Interestingly, the term used for Banerjee in the 1990s was paagli, or
madwoman. She was the perennial rabble rouser on perpetual dharna
outside the Writers’ Building, the West Bengal secretariat. "Now what
is she protesting," went the popular discourse.

But there was a mote of affection in this. She was seen as unruly,
crazy, and funny even – people shook their heads when they spoke of
her. That changed when the Trinamool wrested power from the Left in
2011. The shift reflects the belief that Mamata is unfit to rule. She
is tolerable as an Opposition leader, but not as the chief minister.

We want our ministers elegant and refined, crisp in their Bangla
pronunciation and grammar, if not in English too, fully able to
pronounce a project and a problem as such, not poject and poblem as
Banerjee does.

Prejudice in print

Not just in the realm of gossip, this class prejudice is visible in
the formal public discourse too. The front page of The Telegraph on
April 27 attributed the growing support for the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)-Congress jote (alliance) to the Trinamool’s lack of
culture. “I feel ashamed that Mamata Banerjee is our chief minister,”
a CPM supporter was quoted in the piece as saying. “From BC Roy to
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, our leaders were of a certain standard.
Bengal was known for its culture. Now we have fallen…”

The journalist who wrote the piece reported: “Many people we meet, who
invariably insist on remaining anonymous, keep talking of the sharp
decline in values and culture over the past five years – never mind
the overdose of Rabindrasangeet and the visible sparkle in Calcutta
streets that outsiders are wont to admire.”

Implicit here is that the Trinamool and its supporters have no
civility, no manners. To paraphrase that terrific line from the film
Ishqiya: “Hamara culture culture, unka culture servant class.”

This isn’t a new sentiment. Almost a decade ago, a report in The
Telegraph described how Trinamool MLAs broke the furniture in the
Vidhan Sabha as response to news that Mamata Banerjee had been stopped
by the police on her way to Singur. The headline said: “Skin Thicker
than Teak Table". The article referred to the value of the teak and
mahogany furniture, which dated back to the 1940s.

Brawls and fisticuffs are common not only in the Indian Parliament but
across the world. Rarely is the value of the goods broken mentioned
like this. Here, the sentiment was that Trinamool legislators don’t
understand the value of fine things.

The perfect subaltern

Banerjee isn’t the only leader who faces this manner of class distaste
in India. In 2009, when Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, who was
then the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, made her interest in the prime
minister’s job known, the widespread anxiety in the English-language
press was about whether she would be able to speak to international
leaders in English.

“She has never been seen conversing in English,” said a piece in “Her Hindi too has the rough edges of the western
jat-land." The Times of India speculated that her appeal was limited
“considering that the preference of a sizeable section of the
population is likely to be for an urbane PM conversant with the
intricacies of the economy and international affairs…”

The interesting thing, of course, is that Banerjee is not from a Dalit
background like Mayawati, or even a non-upper-caste background like
Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. She is, in fact, a
Brahmin, a Banerjee at that – a Brahmin at the top of the Brahmin
hierarchy. But despite her dressing in white handloom saris (as ethnic
chic as it gets) and her promotion of Rabindrasangeet, her identity
and appeal remain distinctly subaltern.

She is the politician mocked for lying about her doctorate degree, her
inability to speak refined English or Bangla, her tacky fondness for
Bollywood and Tollywood actors. Her distasteful comments on victims of
sexual violence – she described the rape of the late Suzette Jordan on
Kolkata’s Park Street as sajano ghatona (staged incident) – add to her
uncouth reputation. Here is a woman leader who openly expresses
misogynistic views.

In that sense then, Banerjee’s rise reflects the perfect realisation
of the Communists’ determinedly caste-blind class politics. She is the
embodiment of the subaltern – the proletariat that the comrades wanted
to raise.

When she speaks, she speaks the aspirations of not only the Dalit or
the non-upper-caste but of every marginalised, under-confident
subaltern voice. And she reveals too, the perfect dread of the
Communists’ politics coming to fruition.


Poison, nectar and a churning

Mamata victory is a triumph of a model made by Jayalalithaa, Naveen
Patnaik, Nitish Kumar. Here, in a milieu of emphatic
“subalternisation”, lumpenisation and empowerment have struck

Written by Ranabir Samaddar | Published:May 20, 2016 12:01 am

The West Bengal assembly election of 2016, won comprehensively by the
Trinamool Congress (TMC), involved the deepest dynamics of social
divisions and stratification.

A noticeable trait was the absence of any positive programme of the
CPI(M)-Congress Left-liberal combine, which attempted almost a velvet
revolution of the kind seen in Eastern Europe in the late eighties and
early nineties: a restorative exercise. In this case, the supposedly
great call was for Restoration of Democracy — but none of the parties
wanted to talk of social classes. The ruling party claimed it was
developing West Bengal, but looked as though it was embarrassed to
follow a pro-lower class development policy; the Left-liberal combine
avoided references to classes, divisions and programmes — as though it
is only through killing politics that the liberal exhortation to
democracy wins.

No election in West Bengal has been as immersed in logistics as this
one. The farther the logistical exercise went, the louder became the
liberal call to freedom through law and order and strengthening the
state machinery of policing so that citizens could have democracy — as
though West Bengal was facing an Emergency, and only massive central
paramilitary forces could ensure enjoyment of the fruits of liberty.
In this cry for democracy it had to be ensured that nobody raised
disturbing questions of land, wage, access to market, food, education,
etc. and, in particular, Singur and Nandigram. By suppressing all
issues that created faultlines in democracy, democracy had to be
brought back to West Bengal, which, we were told, was in a void, or if
you like, on the brink of an abyss. To do so, elections had to be
regimented, garrisoned, policed, patrolled, monitored, relayed,
measured, evaluated, and judged as the war progressed, to finally earn
the seal of a “democratic exercise”.

How did this idea of being on the brink take hold? To understand that,
we have to see how the high intellectuals in Bengal articulated the

call for democracy and suppressed the issues of lower classes. They
were not happy with their lost authority and injured legitimacy to
speak for society, which is undergoing social churning, and which
added to the election’s unpredictability. The “subalternisation” of
politics has made it less Kolkata- and media-centric, and to that
extent, the TMC’s strength was almost proportional to the destitution
of power in society. The TMC had never been as organised as the Left
Front, and had emerged primarily as a movement — unruly, uncontrolled
— and as a subaltern response to the six-decade rule of the political
classes. Invariably in this response there was, and is, a degree of
lumpenisation and crime, but also an enormous involvement of poor
people who saw the TMC as their new protector. The Left had thought of
development not only in a highly statist manner, but progressively in
a neo-liberal manner too. Upper middle class Kolkata, satiated with
the principles of enlightenment, liked it — enjoying both the prestige
of the Left and the power of the Right all these years. No wonder they
largely supported the Left Front’s industrialisation drive and
articulated the cultural contours of a peculiarly left-liberal

The intellectuals could never reconcile to Bengal taking the path of
Bihar’s politics. With a new style of functioning, political patronage
and way of welfare, questions of caste and social exclusion were being
addressed in a manner reminiscent of Bihar from Karpoori Thakur to
Nitish Kumar. If the TMC has won despite middle-class disenchantment
and upper-class opposition, we can say that a model based on a strong
government, marginalised opposition, and a stable, populist,
benevolent, autocratic leadership, is generally succeeding.
Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish and Mamata will all be seen as
makers of that model. In the milieu of emphatic “subalternisation”,
lumpenisation and empowerment have struck together, almost like poison
and nectar that came out of the churning.

Stung by reality, the educated in Bengal asked: What is this

poriborton that had been promised in 2011? Once again, the similarity
between the velvet revolution and the cry for democracy is striking.
It began with a delegation of intellectuals — composed of a famous
poet, a famous scholar, an actor, and other good Samaritans —
presenting a demand for free and fair elections through greater
supervision. Their banner was “Save Democracy”. They sought the
removal of Chief Electoral Officer Sunil Gupta and Deputy Election
Commissioner Sandeep Saxena, and the arrest of several grassroots TMC
leaders. Indeed, they set the agenda for the Left and BJP who claimed
a lack of democratic ambience — and essentially demanded more guns to
save democracy.

Around the same time, respected social scientists started appearing on
TV and op-ed pages, comparing the chief minister’s style to that of an
absolute monarch that had ruined or irreparably damaged democracy. The
universal lament was that Bengal was in decline, institutions were in
crisis, and only strong-willed, conscientious intellectuals could
protect whatever remained of the institutional integrity of Bengal’s
education and culture. An ex-finance minister declared that though he
was old and infirm, he would crawl on his chest (or belly) to cast his
vote against “that lady”. Throughout his op-ed invective he did not
mention the name of the person; clearly she did not deserve to be
called by her name.
Another left intellectual known for his radical past rued that
miscreants and hoodlums were now ruling Bengal. The spoken and
unspoken appeal in these op-eds was for greater EC presence — more
armed forces, more supervision, more patrolling, and more police

We should fear an intellectual power that puts society to sleep, does
not consult the poorer strata of society, and pleads for development
and economic growth without any reference to the lower order. We
should fear a society that allows itself to be modelled by those who

claim that as producers of ideas, intellectuals are beyond rebuke or
critique. The change of 2011 was often presented by the learned
classes as a moment of uncertain madness when the people “erred”.
Chaos scares the upper classes: hence the discourse of being at the
brink, void, decline, ruin, and the consequent cry for democracy. The
way this election was conducted showed above all the spectral presence
of the poorer classes in the democratic game.

It is evident in this discourse why and how the liberals lost the
working people. We are witnessing a return to the age of social
contradictions and political conflicts, which will increasingly become
acute. We are also witnessing a gradual passing over from the politics
of intense campaign as the heart of election to a kind of electoral
subjectivity that is half-political and half-machinic, born out of
entanglements of people, the media as a propaganda machine,
supervision machinery, software, and logistics.

The strategy of the TMC is to accept this reality and bypass it. It
represents the lower classes, yet does not want to emphasise class
divisions. Its slogan of development aims at achieving the hegemonic
position once attained by the Left. Yet, this rhetoric will be
incapable of glossing over social contradictions — first because of
its lower-order origin; second, because it thinks the possibilities of
development policy are limitless.

But there is one more reason why the possibility of a TMC strategy to
build hegemony may be limited. It is that while it has dismantled the
structure of party-controlled mobilisation that combined centralised
and capillary forms of power, the void has created an uncertain brew
of social activism, welfarism, encouragement to traditional grassroots
institutions like clubs, and the power of local toughs to build
votebanks and mobilise the poor when needed — with all of these
reinforced by the legitimacy provided by an exceptionally strong
leader and development-focused governance. This has resulted, and will
continue to result, in the simultaneity of episodic violence and

The writer is Distinguished Chair, Calcutta Research Group.

Peace Is Doable



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