Voter as victim, leader as saviour

There are more ways in which lineage plays out in India’s chaotic politics than belonging to a family’s gene pool. Dynastic politics is different from the lineages that have been created by political parties and their members. There are links that connect the past with the present through a shared history of movements, struggles and agitations. And then there is the lineage that connects a leader to the masses, many of whom may have had similar experiences which establish a bond of sympathy that opens up the channels of support that mimics loyalty or faith but are not quite the same.
The constituents bound by sympathy identify their experiences with the travails of the leader. The narratives of suffering in politics on account of the oppression, exploitation, extortion, violence or exclusion by the “other” join as supporters of the leader in ways that convert the vote into an implacable rejection of any alternative. There is a shared enmity that is kept alive through repetitions that remind the fellow sufferers of common and shared experiences. Demonising the enemy is, therefore, part of the repertoire of messages that go out to keep the link strong and live.
The Left led by the Communist Party of India Marxist has established its lineage through decades of opposition to communalism, capitalism, neo-imperialism, neo-liberalism and its support to secularism, socialism and the working class, the economically weakest sections of the people. The Congress has its political and dynastic lineages that are a bewildering mix of messages that continue albeit in ever-shrinking numbers to attract those in sympathy. The Bharatiya Janata Party in claiming to speak on behalf of the numerical majority of Hindus has established its lineage and its sympathisers. The newer political parties have a variety of lineages to offer, mostly caste-based. Therefore Mayawati repeats at every opportunity that she is the “Daughter of the Dalits,” and a representative of the Bahujan Samaj, specifying the section of people who ought to identify with her at an entirely different emotional level.
The process of establishing lineage requires the almost daily reinvention of the enemy as a necessary reminder of the history of exclusion or oppression, thereby keeping alive the memories of past injury. The reminder is like the Hate bulletin in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that stokes a frenzy of feelings and keeps the rage alive. It is therefore necessary for leaders like Mamata Banerjee to put the CPI(M)’s long rule of 34 years in West Bengal in the dock every time and on every occasion, because she and the reported Phulrenu Mondal who attended a public rally on February 12 at Tekhali, a war zone during the 2007 Nandigram violence, have a shared history of being victims. As a victim of gangrape in the wake of the confrontation between Nandigram locals, the CPI(M) and the state government and its police, Phulrenu Mondal has reasons to hate the same people about whom Ms Banerjee said: “What did the CPI(M) do when it was in power? It opened fire and looted lands.” The appeal was designed emotionally stir the crowds in Tekhali to vote for the Trinamul Congress: “I won’t forget you in my life. I live in Nandigram, I live in Khejuri. Nandigram is in my dreams.” No other political leader or party can woo this constituency of the injured away from Ms Banerjee.
Aggressive political action and violence establishes a link that develops into a lineage. The Trinamul Congress has taken over from where the CPI(M) of an earlier era left off in glorifying the fighting spirit. Its leaders, taking a cue from the spectacular success of Ms Banerjee in ousting the Left Front from power in West Bengal through a sustained aggressive movement, seem to have worked out that the fighting spirit is a prized possession. The “do or die” rhetoric of Ms Banerjee and her street fighter skills have clearly rubbed off on aspirants searching for ways in which to acquire a foothold. Whereas for victims with a persistent sense of helplessness or despair, there can be no alternative to the leader as saviour-protector, who has suffered too at the hands of the perpetrator for others like the notorious Arabul or Mohammad Iqbal absconding after the killing of a policeman in Garden Reach, Kolkata, successful leadership is all about rallying support by combining aggression with fear.
The tolerance of the Trinamul Congress for those who engage in aggressive acts, including violent disruption, manhandling and assault is higher compared to perhaps almost any other political party, with the leader herself unabashed about using threats of physical assault to reprimand policemen on duty. Every time Ms Banerjee has condoned by brushing aside, minimising or denying wrongdoing, she has encouraged the aspirations of a section of supporters who believe that recognition and stardom are the rewards of causing or creating disorder.
This aristocracy of the aggressive exists in all political parties but has acquired a cult status in West Bengal through the evolution of the politics of polarisation and patronage. Describing it as “goonda raj” or criticising the Trinamul Congress for its evident lack of capability in running the government as governor M.K. Narayanan has done cuts no ice with Ms Banerjee. To her core voters and local leaders-imposers of the Trinamul Congress code, the capacity to display aggression is a necessary attribute. The Trinamul Congress stands for playing by its own rules, righteousness and a certain quality of recklessness that lends itself to being interpreted as heroism, playing on sympathy to garner support by displaying aggression.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Kolkata

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