‘Gorkha Voters Are Concerned About NRC In Bengal’

Deepa Thapa, 25, a Gorkha living in West Bengal, says none of the parties in fray has a spotless record in governance, be it healthcare or economy

I belong to a family of Gorkhas from Nepal who have shifted to India. My father shifted to India more than 20 years ago but most of our extended family is still in Pokhra, Our extended family gets worried whenever there is tension in Indo-Nepalese relations.

I have assured my relatives that I have always felt loved and safe here in India and personally I have never experienced any discrimination, but sometimes policy changes are so sudden and ambiguous that one doesn’t know who might get caught in it.

Frankly, Amit Shah might have said that Gorkhas didn’t really need to worry about NRC (National Register of Citizens), but as an individual I do worry about it. Whenever such news comes up, I read every detail about it in depth so that my family is never caught off-guard. I keep an eye on the statements made by our national leaders, because on crucial matters they have more say than local leaders. However, I give more importance to local leaders than those at the top.

Thapa is an HR professional in Kolkata

As about the demand for Gorkhaland, I am neutral in that regard. I can understand people who want it and I can also understand people who don’t want it. Maybe I would be able to take sides, be able to cross the bridge when we finally come to it.

Personally I think West Bengal electorate is caught between the devil and the deep sea, with no party being better than the other. I feel one should always vote keeping in mind which local representative of a party is doing better work. Before voting one must clearly figure out what their priorities are when it comes to governance and whether there is a likelihood of those priorities being met.

ALSO READ: ‘Bengal Muslims Will Choose Didi Over Owaisi’

Talking as a common individual, I feel both the BJP and TMC are doing little for the economy. West Bengal was anyway under the Left parties rule for so many years that it will take a long time to revive the state’s entrepreneurial spirit. So we need someone in the state who can lead from the front, especially in times like these when so many people are facing an uncertain future job or business-wise due to the raging coronavirus. I feel the pandemic could have been handled better by both the state and central government.

I also wish that India and Nepal’s relationship goes back to how it was in the past. Every time there is a slightest friction in the Indo- Nepalese relation, our Gorkha community here as well as relatives in Nepal get worried.

We Gorkhas are a tight-knit and loving community and so is India generally, and I hope whichever party comes to power, they ensure that their representatives, right from the local to the national level, communicate openly with people. And I would love to see representation from different ethnic backgrounds at the local level.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

‘Centre Did Little To Help Businesses Amid Covid’

Biplob Basu, 34, a food entrepreneur, says small businesses suffered due to demonetisation, GST and there was little help during pandemic from the BJP-led government at the Centre

My story is one for the books. Both my parents are doctors but I pursued Hotel Management and chose to be a food entrepreneur. And it hasn’t been a smooth ride. The year I opened Petuk, a home-based eatery with a catering division in Kolkata was also the time when politics began over the palate. What you were eating and serving came under scanner.

People with no understanding of Bangla food, wanted to dictate what others should or should not eat. I would therefore prefer a government which is open-minded and understands plural cultures and cuisines.

There are other reasons too why I would choose Mamata Didi’s Trinamool over the BJP. My food venture had just about begun to break even in 2016 when the Centre announced demonetisation. It was taxing time as people queued before ATMs and eating out was not a priority. Just about when that phase was over, the GST (goods and services tax) was rolled out. My expenses (taxation) rose but not my earnings.

I was barely able to understand the nitty gritty of GST when rumours spread in Kolkata that many eateries were serving carcass meat. People in food business came under stress for two years (2018-19).

Biplob Basu is against mixing politic and palate

I waded through all this and stepping ahead of home-based catering, I opened a restaurant at Hazra (Kolkata) in 2018. A little over an year, and I managed to open another restaurant in Jadavpur in December 2019. And then the pandemic struck, strict lockdown was announced.

The new restaurant was at a rented property. I had to pay the rent, salaries of the staff, while there was no income. That broke my back. I am sure other MSMEs like me suffered a lot too, but Bengal also faced a cyclone (Amphan) during lockdown.

ALSO READ: ‘How I Turned The (Dining) Tables On Covid’

Even when the ‘Unlock’ began in phases, the business did not pick up. I was forced to shut one of the restaurant. I read about Central assistance to small and medium businesses so I went to apply for an MSME loan, only to realise that the process was lengthy and cumbersome, not beneficial for ventures like ours.

Now, with elections upon us, it is payback time. I want a party in power which understands that their decisions taken at the spur of the moment can adversely impact lives of people for years to come. I want a government that can create both a good social and business environment. I want a government that understands people as individuals and not a homogeneous groups with a single story. Clearly, my choice is the incumbent party. I am very happy with the way the Mamata government handled the pandemic.

There were strict checks at regular intervals to see if business units were following all due measures from face masks to hair masks, to regular sanitization of the premises to temperature checks. My entrepreneurship spirit is still alive and kicking and I will definitely steady myself up; all we need is a government that can put a spark into the hospitality sector again.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

Racing Ahead – In A Wheelchair

Her opponents brand her as a ‘drama queen’ and she has been trolled by BJP supporters after she suffered multiple injuries outside a temple at Nandigram on March 10. This followed a highly successful rally where she invoked the secular shared spaces of a syncretic society, even while chanting shlokas and mantras which are familiar and embedded in the Bengali consciousness. Her medical reports show she has suffered injuries and a fracture on her left ankle. Her leg is in a cast, even as she continues to campaign from a wheelchair.

In such circumstances, if a chief minister of a state suffers injuries in an accident, or attack, the least that should happen, even in the bitterness and heat of the elections, is that good wishes would be sent to her-him for a speedy recovery. This is the basic protocol of public decency and democratic fair play. For reasons too crudely apparent in contemporary India, that dimension seems to have altogether disappeared from the political arena of opponents, especially in the current battleground that is West Bengal.

Not heeding the doctor’s advice, as she said, of rest for 14 days, she joined in the memorial service of party supporters in Kolkata to the 14 martyrs of Nandigram in 2007. She was paying tribute to a mass movement against forcible land acquisition for a multinational company, which toppled the ruling Left Front government, led by the CPM, after 34 years. She then led a long march in Kolkata sitting on a wheel chair.

Since the Nandigram fiasco, the Left has depleted in strength, confidence and inspiration, while under the indisputable and formidable leadership of Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool Congress has consolidated its hold on power and mass support, despite allegations of corruption and promotion of dynasty.

Besides, her government has done extensive social welfare work among the people, especially among the poor, including the minorities. For instance, rice, dal, oil, etc, is still being given in substantial quantity to poor people across the state even months after the lockdown was lifted. This has helped thousands of people survive without jobs or daily wages, and restart their lives once again.

ALSO READ: Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

The 43 per cent vote bank of Trinamool has remained intact even while the BJP scored almost 40 per cent vote share and 18 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal, from being nothing but a marginal figure in the state’s political scenario. Since then, it has been a straight contest between Mamata and all the heavyweights of the BJP combined, led by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and JP Nadda, who have become regular visitors to Bengal, accompanied by all the paraphernalia, pomp and show, and media glare.

And, yet, in these assembly elections, despite pumping in money and media support, a lot of rhetoric and grand promises like ₹15,000 in every farmer’s bank account, backed by convoys of cars and rath yatras with slogans of Jai Shri Ram, the BJP is still not able to find its scaffoldings, or the right strategy. Seasoned political commentators are certain that there is no BJP wave on the ground. After the flop rally at the Brigade Ground led by Modi on March 7, with vast spaces empty and an unenthusiastic crowd, and practically no celebrity joining them except an ageing Mithun Chakraborty, observers say they will struggle to even cross the 100 mark in a 294-seat assembly.

In contrast, Mamata seems to have touched the right chord. “I am hurt and unwell, but my goal remains the same. My pain is not greater than the suffering of the people whose rights in a democracy are being trampled upon by a dictatorship,” she said, sitting on the wheel chair, before the start of the march in memory of the Nandigram struggle on March 10. “I will continue to go around Bengal on this wheelchair. If I go on bed rest, who will reach out to the people of Bengal? …A wounded tigress is more dangerous.”

Street shows and rallies usually do not translate into votes. The Left-Congress alliance organised a massive rally at Brigade Ground in Kolkata with the crowd spilling over on February 28. In 2019 also, the Left had organised a massive rally at the venue. But, the Left scored zero.

It is believed in Bengal that large number of Left supporters, who obsessively hate the Trinamool, voted for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha elections. The Left-Congress alliance in the last assembly elections had trouble on the ground with the CPM getting less seats than the Congress because it was alleged that the Congress votes were not transferred to the Left.

ALSO READ: ‘Muslims Will Vote Bengal’s Didi, Not Owaisi’

However, processions and rallies have also been a catalytic indicator of mass support, and Trinamool has been able to translate it on the ground with its organisational strength, much of it refurbished on the erstwhile Left model. Hence, the failure of the BJP’s ‘Poribortan Rath Yatra’ across the five points of Bengal is significant. Besides, Jai Shri Ram did not resonate with the people who are worshippers of Durga, Kali and Krishna (Hari), and followers of the Bhakti-Vaishnav tradition of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, as much as the secular spiritual inheritance of Ramakrishna Paramhans and Vivekananda. Clearly, the Hindutva card of the Hindi heartland might not click in Bengal.

On March 15, Amit Shah had to cancel his rally at Jhargram in the crucial Jangalmahal area. The BJP said there was a helicopter snag. The ground reality is that the rally ground was virtually empty. The seven-minute virtual speech made by Shah saw the crowds walking off, in a state where Hindi remains an alien language. Shah’s short speech was too short, an indication that the BJP is losing the plot in Jangalmahal. Jhargram had earlier witnessed a similar flop-show with JP Nadda reportedly refusing to even visit the venue because of low audience strength. Earlier, Nadda’s rath yatra was jinxed in Barackpore too. Even Yogi Adityanath’s much-hyped rally at Balrampur in Purulia on March 16 saw a very poor turn out.

In fact, the low turn-out at BJP rallies have become a big worry in the party, as much as the internal tussle for tickets. Amit Shah had to rush from Guwahati to Kolkata to sort out matters even as BJP workers broke barricades at the Hastings party office in Kolkata. While a few Trinamool MLAs have crossed over to the BJP, there is resentment in the party against tickets being given to turn-coats or ‘outsiders’.

The question is: if the BJP has mass support, why is it not showing up in public spaces? Or, is it banking on its silent support base, as in the unprecedented Lok Sabha elections in 2019, especially among the economically deprived Hindu refugees who arrived from Bangladesh in the 1980s, migrants from UP and Bihar, and sections of the middle class? Is it still banking on the botched-up and sectarian Citizenship Act plank to woo the Hindu refugees and other backward and indigenous communities like the Matuas and Rajbongshis?

While, the BJP is still struggling to find a strategy, Mamata Banerjee, on a wheel chair, is moving from one rally to another of the 130 scheduled. As the battle unfolds, even a neutral referee would say, it is Advantage Mamata, as of now! In fact, nothing describes the current political situation in the state better than the Trinamool’s catchphrase which says: Khela Hobe! Bhaanga Payein Khela Hobe!! (The game is on! With a fractured foot, the game is on!!)

India’s Fall From Democracy To Electoral Autocracy

By virtue of its having a population of close to 1.37 billion and holding elections to Parliament and state assemblies every five years as required under the Constitution and on the basis of adult suffrage, India has logical claims to the status of the world’s largest democracy. Unfortunately, to popular concern, India is not faring well as a democracy in the eyes of independent global watchdogs.

These agencies use copiously collected social science data and feedback from a wide range of independent sources before they decide where a particular democracy finds itself in their indexes. The first blow for India came from Freedom House, a US based watchdog funded largely by the US Administration, which relegated the country to “partly free” status from the earlier “free” ranking.

Now a much harsher admonition for India comes from Sweden based V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute. In a major setback for liberal democracy, “the world’s largest democracy has turned into an electoral autocracy,” says the V-Dem report. The country’s 23 percentage point slide on V-Dem scale since 2013 makes “it one of the most dramatic shifts (read in terms of erosion of democracy) among all countries in the world over the past ten years.”

Elaborating how democratic values got eroded in India, V-Dem says: “Autocratisation process has largely followed the typical pattern for countries in the ‘Third Wave’ over the past ten years: a gradual deterioration where freedom of the media, academia and civil society were curtailed first and to the greatest extent.”

But Pranab Bardhan, professor emeritus of economics at University of California, Berkley, says much of Indian media, particularly the TV channels are found “shamelessly” ingratiating themselves with the powers that be. What freedom of the Press can there be when media owners and journalists who matter have on their own drawn the Lakshman Rekha in a way offering comfort to the ruling party at the Centre and in states like Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. What is left of free media is some news and opinion websites run by some intrepid journalists and a magazine or two.

ALSO READ: A Tale Of Two Indian Protests In Media

Bardhan is surprised that BJP has the gumption to complain that the opposition is engaged in smearing the reputation of the country across the world. “But it is now imperative to say that the way democracy is being trampled in so many ways is giving the country a bad name. Let’s take the case of harassment of Disha Ravi (climate activist). Hasn’t this invited global criticism? I will say those who describe the protesting farmers and principled journalists as anti-nationalists are a blot on our democracy,” says Bardhan.

Bardhan, a global campaigner for equality of opportunity for human development, has strong distaste for doublespeak that BJP leaders indulge in. They, according to him, will say sabka saath sabka vikas (development for all) but when it comes to act they will spew hatred for the ones not of their faith. Why Bills are not discussed any longer and Acts are steamrolled through Parliament?

Bardhan thinks the fear of courting uncomfortable questions has made Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to hold Press conferences at all. The people are instead left with ‘Man ki Baat,’ a monologue that leaves no room for questions to be asked. (To put the record straight, Modi at least once sat for a long interview with the former Hindustan Times chief editor Sanjoy Narayan.)

Incidentally, Bardhan like many other front-ranking intellectuals is a strident critic of the NDA decision on demonetisation and the Covid-19 lockdown for the indescribable sufferings of the common man, millions of migrant workers and people dependent on the unorganised sectors. Now we learn from the periodic labour survey by National Statistical Office that the urban unemployment rate in the country shot up to 20.9% in April-June 2020 coinciding with the lockdown from 9.1% in the previous quarter. But what will go unrecorded are the physical, mental and financial pains millions of migrant workers suffered because of sudden declaration of the lockdown without giving them a chance to go back to wherefrom they came by train and long distant buses.

In a recent interview with the largely circulated Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, Bardhan expressed his anguish over disintegration of the country’s federal structure. As policy decisions are getting concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office (PMO), in a novel development New Delhi is regularly trespassing into areas reserved for the states. There are too many occasions when the centre without seeking the views of states are addressing subjects concerning education, health, agriculture, law and order and labour.

The winding up of the Planning Commission where the states could place their economic demands and subsequently get relief from the government was a blow to federalism. As for revenue mobilisation, every time New Delhi would impose a cess that will be a denial to states of their rightful share. This is not the case when revenues are mobilised by way of taxes.

Drawing an analogy with Germany in the 1930s where the Communists and social democrats locked in political bickering helped in Hitler coming to power, Bardhan strongly recommends that the Left, the Congress and Trinamool Congress should not allow their past differences, often quite bitter, to come in the way to stop BJP from wresting power in West Bengal.

ALSO READ: Battle For Bengal Is The Election to Watch

Bardhan says if the Left truly believes that ‘Ram in 2021 and Bam (that is left) in 2026’ then it is indulging in self-delusion. The left apparently doesn’t want to have any kind of understanding with Trinamool since its members and supporters had suffered a lot in the hands of ruling party members in the past ten years. But he says in the past ahead of the Left Front rule, the Communists were given a hellish time by the Congress. The left, according to him, will be showing wisdom if it is found ready to bury all such hatchets to stop the BJP juggernaut. He at the same time wants the Matua and Rajbangsi communities, which are befriended by BJP, to stay clear of the party with strong Brahminical leanings.

People from different parts of the country have over centuries made Bengal their home and in the process they have made rich contribution to the local economy and culture. Many Bengalis are uncomfortable that BJP is described by incumbent Trinamool as a party of outsiders.

Bardhan has an interesting take on this: “BJP has tenuous links with Bengali culture. Since the party doesn’t have a great Bengali intellectual to boast, it is busy paying obeisance to Bankim Chandra, Rabindranath, Swami Vivekananda and Subhas Chandra Bose. But it is impossible to reconcile BJP’s Hindutva with what these great Bengali minds wrote and said.”

Bankim Chandra will not accept that the country has made any progress unless the Muslims and everyone else have a share in it. Vivekananda wanted everyone to read the Bible and the Quran along with the Gita. Subhas Chandra was secular to the core. His strong disapproval when Syama Prasad Mukherjee joined Hindu Mahasabha is well known. Finally, the world has known Tagore as a well wisher of both Hindus and Muslims and as someone desirous of their brotherhood.

‘We Will Choose Bengal’s Didi Over Muslim Owaisi’

Maulana Shahidul Qadri, 45, from Dhankheti, Metiaburj in Kolkata, says local issues hold key to assembly elections and therefore he will prefer Trinamool candidate than a divisive BJP or AIMIM

At a time when many people around the country have given in to the politics of division and polarity, people in Bengal are still standing united, strongly. We Bengalis form an opinion after a lot of deliberation and in-depth understanding and analysis of a matter, and thus one cannot divide us so easily.

As a Maulana and also as an Imam of the masjid at Dhankheti (Metiaburj), I tell people not to fall prey to the politics of hate; firqakaparasti wali baton me mat aaiye. We also tell people through editorials in various newspapers that we should not forget local issues while state elections are underway.

I wonder why BJP makes every election, right down to even the civic body elections, about national issues. Wasn’t our election system created and upgraded so that issues at every level could find adequate voice and be solved subsequently?

BJP might try bringing in the big guns for the elections, but Mamata Banerjee will once again become the CM. We have chosen to support Didi even over a Muslim candidate, AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi. It is not about Hindu-Muslim leaders, but rather on who as a leader has an understanding of local issues.

ALSO READ: Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

The BJP-TMC face-off means everyday there’s some new statement from either side, but the electorate is noticing everything. The pandemic has shown us how important it is to have robust local leadership and we will keep focussing on that.

Bengal was a more peaceful place earlier, but now you hear news of BJP-TMC or BJP-Left clashes. I condemn incidents like attacks on JP Nadda; violence shouldn’t have any place in a democracy. We are Bengalis and Indians too, apart from being Hindus and Muslims.

Sometimes I wonder if like Assam, madarsa education will be banned in West Bengal as well! How will we then understand the basics of the faith we practise? There are many other ways in which the Muslim identity and the country’s Constitution and the institutions are being chipped away by the BJP but we have faith in both Mamata Didi and Allah.

NRC-CAA, Shaheen Bagh, illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, purportedly for whom the bill was brought in… was a burning issue just an year ago, do you hear as much of it during Bengal elections? Why? We can see through everything. The Prime Minister is not the leader of a party alone and not only of a particular party or community. He must take the whole country together and walk.

ALSO READ: It’s Bengal Trinamool Vs Outsider BJP

The first term of this government was all about sowing seeds of mistrust between communities that had been mostly living peacefully for so long. The second term was all about interpreting law in such a way that that hatred was normalised. Even though we respect the Ram Janmbhoomi verdict, it would have been nice if the bhoomi-poojan had been a calmer affair.

Triple talaq, Delhi riots, NRC and now the love jihad (which the Supreme Court has said doesn’t hold true because relationship between two consenting adults is their choice), I wonder when will all this stop and when will we begin focussing on issues that really matter for us as a country?

No leader is perfect, and Mamata Banerjee gets angered easily, but we feel ke unka dil saf hai aur hausla buland. She has our interests at heart. We hope in the coming years she will mature into a calmer leader and learn to strategize better, Bengal and the country can truly benefit from that.

The Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

Of the four states where there will soon be assembly elections in April-May, West Bengal’s will be the most keenly watched. It is the state where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the biggest challenger to the incumbent All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) government, which, led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, is completing 10 years in power.

For several years, the eastern state has been a hard nut to crack for the BJP but in the last parliamentary polls, the party managed to win 18 member of parliament seats from Bengal, which was a feat considering that the party has traditionally managed to get no more than two MPs elected from the state. In the West Bengal assembly, the BJP currently has just 27 of the 294 seats (the AITC and its allies have 211).

The BJP’s formulaic approach to winning in the states – the party enjoys power in 18 of India’s 28 states – thus far has been a combination of caste and religion based politics. In the Hindi belt states as well as in the western states this has worked well. But in Bengal, caste politics and religious issues have mattered less in the past. That, however, could change. The Muslim population in Bengal has grown steadily and is estimated now at nearly 30% compared to the all-India proportion of a little more than 13%.

This has two implications. A larger proportion of Muslim voters has stood in the way of the Hindu nationalist-leaning BJP becoming popular in the state. But it has also created a sort of backlash among Hindu voters many of whom perceive Ms Banerjee’s government as being one that appeases the minority community. The BJP wants to turn that sort of backlash to an electoral advantage.

The BJP is also following a strategy that challenges Ms Banerjee’s government with charges of corruption, particularly against her nephew Abhisek Banerjee, who is an MP and a powerful member of her party. The party has also managed to chip away at the AITC by getting some of its prominent leaders such as former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi, former state ministers Subhendu Adhikary and Rajib Banerjee to defect to the BJP. Although these leaders have limited mass following in the state, their exits have triggered some dissension within Ms Banerjee’s party.

ALSO READ: It’s Bangla Trinamool Vs Outsider BJP

There are other factors that might help the BJP. A large part of the urban population comprising middle-class could be a bit restive about Ms Banerjee’s government, which despite promises has not really been effective in ensuring the state’s economic progress at a more rapid pace. The continuing impact of the pandemic has not helped either.

But yet, the AITC led by the feisty Ms Banerjee has many strong advantages in the state. For instance, the BJP really doesn’t have a credible face to project as its chief ministerial candidate for the state. Also, the backlash against Muslims may have grown but the fact remains that at in 100 of the 294 constituencies, Muslim voters will be the ones who will decide who wins. And the BJP is unlikely to get their favour.

The AITC has also employed the services of a poll strategist with a good track record – Prashant Kishor, who has worked with several Indian parties and leaders, including his efforts in Gujarat where he is believed to have played a key role in ensuring that Narendra Modi got a third term there as chief minister in 2011. The other niggling factor that might affect the BJP is the first ever formal seat-sharing arrangement in the state between the Congress and the Left parties. Both are not significant players anymore (both have just 46 seats between them) but an alliance could dent both, the AITC as well as the BJP’s fortunes in the elections.

The other states that will go to the polls are Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala, and Puducherry. In Tamil Nadu it will be a repeat of the traditional battle between two regional parties, DMK and AIADMK. The BJP, which is likely to have an alliance with AIADMK (in power now), hopes to piggyback on that party if it manages to be re-elected. But early analyses show that DMK may have an edge this time. The Congress and Left parties in the state are allied with the DMK.

ALSO READ: ‘Sreedharan Entry Into Politics A Boon For Kerala’

In Kerala, the pattern has traditionally been one where every five years the fortunes swing between the Left and the Congress. In other words, the opposition gets elected to power. By that logic, the Congress-led alliance may come back to power, dislodging the Left alliance which forms the incumbent government. The Congress is hoping that the fact that Rahul Gandhi represents Wayanad (he was elected MP from that constituency in Kerala) will give it more of an edge.

Meanwhile, the BJP looks confident in being able to retain power in Assam but the Congress party there is focussing its strategy on opposing the National Registrar of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, two thorny issues that have divisive effects in the state. In Puducherry, a union territory, the Congress government has collapsed recently and although this has created uncertainties, it could well work to the advantage of a BJP-backed alliance if that can be formed.

But it is West Bengal that will steal the show during the state elections. The battle for Bengal could be one that is fought tooth and nail by both, Ms Banerjee who wants to come back for a third term; and the BJP, which wants to wrest control of a state that has always posed formidable challenges to it.

Standing Up To Hindu Nationalists

Who is Amartya Sen? His global admiration is based more on his work as an economist than as a philosopher. Jean Dreze himself a celebrated economist inquiring into development issues based on Indian experiences and who is a long time collaborator of Professor Sen in many works sees in the Nobel laureate a mirror image of Adam Smith, that is, an economist, a philosopher and much more rolled into one person. In the foreword that he has penned for Lawrence Hamilton’s book How to Read Amartya Sen, Dreze says he sees in Sen “not only… a great mind but also… someone who is keen to bring about practical change in the world.” Indeed the world finds in him more than a celebrated economist and a philosopher but, as Dreze says, “a man of action, even if his preferred tool of action is not climbing barricades, or shooting petitions but public reasoning.” This argumentative Indian is a campaigner for a better and fairer world.

The world salutes the 87 year old Professor Sen whose monumental oeuvre besides leaving a profound impact on “scholarship, policy and action in a wide range of fields” has ignited human minds to ask questions and be sceptical of wisdom passed through generations. However the world may celebrate the work that is still growing of the Harvard professor of economics and philosophy, a group of saffronised people in India, not necessarily all concentrated in Bengal from where he hails, will not let an opportunity pass to ask what has this Nobel laureate given to India or say a few short visits to India leaving his comforts in the US behind are not enough to lay claims that he cares for the welfare of unprivileged here.

Fusillade of such inanities, however, originates in people who lack education to grasp what the Professor is all about. They are simply egged on by some Hindu nationalist politicians enraged by Professor Sen all the time calling a spade a spade.

The present political dispensation has been overtly critical though lacking in substance of Professor Sen for his stand on many social and economic issues but particularly for saying that using religion for the purpose of discrimination is anathema to founding principles of India. In a recent interview with PTI, he said: “Certainly I am critical of any political party that inflames communal and divisive sentiments, particularly between the Hindus and the Muslims.”

Giving the example of Bengal, which paid dearly in the past due to communal strife, he hopes the people of the state will have the good sense to reject the non-secular forces. Incidentally, BJP is all desperate to dethrone Trinamool Congress seen to be pandering to the Muslims who have nearly 30 per cent share of votes in West Bengal. Being in majority in some districts, including overwhelmingly in Murshidabad and Malda, the way the largest minority community votes in April elections to the 294 seat West Bengal Assembly could well decide the outcome in nearly 100 constituencies.

ALSO READ: Fight Against Poverty And Political Populism

Professor Sen continuing to give warnings to the people on dangers of communalism when elections are to be held in West Bengal in three months cannot be music to the ears of BJP. Therefore, it is only logical that the party will use every handle available to it, including the officials of central university Visva-Bharati to fire salvos, however hollow they may be at him. Professor Sen is not spared the accusation that he is in illegal occupation of some land beyond what is sanctioned in the 99 year lease. What is overlooked is that his maternal grandfather scholar extraordinaire Kshitimohan Sen came to Santiniketan at the invitation of Rabindranath Tagore and helped him in building Visva-Bharati. The house Pratichi was built by Professor Sen’s father on lease land but he also bought some parcels of freehold land.

But Hindu nationalists are not expected to be forgiving of the man when he debunks the claims that science and mathematics flourished in ancient India in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Saffronite individuals and institutions may be in denial but through centuries the world is witness to how our “intellectual horizons expand when we learn from each other.” To consider a recent example, the vaccine to counter the Covid-19 pandemic became a reality in ten months against the usual about ten years taken to develop a new vaccine because of close collaboration among scientists from different countries, including India.

More recently Professor Sen courted displeasure of saffron brigade by pointing out that not the Vedic period but the first millennium was the “golden age” of mathematics. Science has got nothing to do with the world of fantasy. “The great mathematical revolution in India was led particularly by Aryabhata, who was born in 476 AD. What Aryabhata developed initially was the ‘golden age’ taken forward by other great mathematicians in India like Brahmagupta, Bhaskara and others. While deeply original, Aryabhata’s mathematics was substantially influenced by the mathematical revolution that had already taken place in Greece, Babylon and Rome,” he said.

ALSO READ: Bangla Trinamool Vs Outsider BJP In Bengal

Newspapermen who speak to the economist cum philosopher know that Sen will desist from deliberating on issues on which he had not done the required study and inquiry. As he told a reporter: “I do not have the habit of passing judgement on issues about which I have at the most three and a half minutes to read in newspapers.” On another occasion asked by the then editor of Anandabazar Patrika Anirban Chattopadhyaya whether the growing emphasis on technology at the expense of humanities in the country’s higher education is not a step in the wrong direction, the answer that Professor Sen gave should be a lesson for many whose views are often sought.

“If what you are saying is happening, then it’s an important issue to ponder. But I don’t think I am competent enough to speak on the subject. I am here suddenly from abroad and I criticise the country’s education system (at college level) and then disappear like a comet. I shall never do that,” said Professor Sen.

He would be more comfortable to speak on primary education since the Pratichi Trust, set up with his Nobel honorarium, is working on the sector. This is intellectual honesty of the highest order. Professor Sen did not endear himself to the ruling establishment when though based on empirical evidences he said the “spread of education among girls in Bangladesh is far higher than both in Bengal and India. So also they have more access to health care than their counterparts here. But why should these differences exist? We are both Bengali people.” Incidentally, work of Pratichi Trust (Bangladesh) of which economist Rehaman Sobhan is chairman is focussed on primary education and health.

BJP has every reason to dislike Manmohan Singh’s friend Professor Sen who has been overtly critical of demonetisation, Citizenship (Amendment Act) and more recently the farm laws. As he maintains that the space for debate in the country is shrinking and his airing of the kind of regime he wanted ahead of 2014 and 2019 elections, it is only likely that BJP will have a strong distaste for him which is manifest in many ways. But it is not only Professor Sen, but historians such as Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and Ramachandra Guha and economists, including Raghuram Rajan, Prabhat Patnaik and Kaushik Basu have fallen foul of saffronites for speaking their mind.

Winds in Bengal May Be Blowing Against Didi

The next big state assembly election after Bihar’s will be in four states—Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and Bengal. In Assam, a BJP-led coalition is in power; in Kerala, it is a coalition of left parties rules; in Puducherry, a tiny union territory, it is a Congress government. But of those elections, the one that will be watched most keenly are the elections in West Bengal where for the second term, it is the Trinamool Congress (TMC) that is in power, led by its feisty chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, fondly called “Didi”, by her supporters.

In the wake of the Bihar elections where the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has won the recent elections, the focus on what happens in Bengal has turned sharper. But first, a quick rewind on Bihar.

Although Bihar’s incumbent government before the elections was an NDA one, it wasn’t meant to be when the 2015 election results were announced. Then, it was the coalition opposed to the BJP that got the winning numbers. But, famously, after the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (U) quit that coalition and crossed over to support the BJP, the tables turned and Nitish Kumar became chief minister of a NDA government in Bihar. Before this year’s elections, there was much speculation about whether the BJP and Kumar would part ways (the latter has had a love-hate relationship with Prime Minister Modi and his party in the past). That did not happen and Kumar was sworn in as chief minister for a second term.

In Bengal, things are quite different. Ms Banerjee whose party won 222 of the 294 seats in the assembly in 2016 could look like she will contest the next elections, scheduled in 2021, from a position of strength. The Left parties in the state, which was run by a leftist alliance for more than three decades, have been decimated in the past decade—they have just 24 seats in the assembly—and the Congress with 23 fares no better. But all eyes are on the BJP. From virtual non-existence in Bengal, the nationalist party won 16 seats in 2016, and in recent years it has been trying to bolster and grow its support base in the state.

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The BJP’s main issues in its campaign will likely be charges of non-governance against Ms. Banerjee’s government, and allegations that it has been overly appeasing minorities in the state. The BJP has been fanning these sentiments for a while in its efforts to garner voters. If elections in Bengal are held as scheduled (in May), there is barely five months left before voters cast their ballot. The BJP has already ramped up their campaigning. Home Minister Amit Shah, and the party’s president JP Nadda have planned frequent visits to Bengal, to address rallies and strengthen the party’s state-level organisation.

The thing that stands in favour of Ms Banerjee, however, is that unlike the BJP or other opposition parties in the state, in her (as the two-time chief minister), the Trinamool Congress has a face and, obviously, a clear chief ministerial candidate for the election. The BJP doesn’t. At least not yet. But opposition parties, including the BJP, hope that anti-incumbency sentiments may finally begin to stir up against Ms. Banerjee and her Trinamool government.

Earlier this month, a small organisation, Crowdwisdom360 (it calls itself India’s first Political Prediction Market) carried out small on-the-ground polls to get a feel of the political mood in Bengal’s districts. Crowdwisdom360 claims that in the recently-held Bihar elections, its seat-level accuracy was 70%. In Bengal, its surveys appear to show that the BJP’s dual messaging against the Banerjee regime (poor governance; and minority appeasement) has been working better than the incumbent government’s absence of positive messages. Crowdwisdom360’s surveys have shown that voters are unable to zero in on concrete reasons why they should vote for Trinamool candidates.

There are problems with such surveys, of course. First, there could be sampling errors that let biases creep in; and second, in India’s electoral politics, things change sometimes quite mercurially. But even if such surveys are disregarded, the mood in Bengal as it heads for another election is quite different from what it was when Ms. Banerjee steered her party to victory for the second time in 2016.

There is discontent among rural voters, largely fuelled by what is perceived as minority appeasement; the COVID-19 pandemic has not helped matters; and the opposition’s campaigns, particularly the BJP’s, have been having an impact. In 2021, for Ms. Banerjee and her party, returning to power for the third time may not be a cakewalk.