» Election » Mamata's message of change finds audience in rural Bengal

Mamata's message of change finds audience in rural Bengal

By Rajat Roy
April 16, 2009 03:35 IST
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 The election manifesto of Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, released last month, did not get the attention it "deserved".

The manifesto speaks of change. In concrete terms, Banerjee speaks of transforming Digha, a small sea resort at the northern end of the Bay of Bengal, into Goa, North Bengal's hills and forests into Switzerland, and Kolkata into London.

Expectedly, the manifesto has been drawing flak from the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist and the media since it came out. The CPI(M) organ lampooned Banerjee for her "wild imagination" and wondered as to why she had stopped short of converting Writers' Building into Buckingham Palace.

Banerjee's similar utterances have frequently made her the butt of unkind jokes in the Kolkata elite. But things in rural Bengal indicate something different. The instant response of a Group D state government employee (who did not want to be identified) in Raigunj, a district town in North Bengal, was: "Mamata is not using political language. She is addressing us."

Banerjee's election manifesto is replete with invective and direct attacks against the ruling CPI(M). It does mention issues related to industrialisation, acquisition of farmland for industry or rural development, but all this is overshadowed by her pledge to change Bengal. Though the coming election is all about sending as many representatives to the Lok Sabha, she is talking of what her party would do if it wins the 2011 Assembly elections.

Achintya Chatterjee, an activist of TC from Habra in North 24 Parganas, the district where the party is expected to do well in the coming election, admits that the ordinary people of Bengal have seen London and Switzerland only on TV and in the movies. "They can't even think of visiting these places. For the ordinary people, these places remain a distant world of plenty, which is beyond their reach.

What Banerjee has done is to point out that given the political will, we can achieve a lot and better our lives." As he campaigns door-to-door to seek vote for his party, Chatterjee says: "Teachers and bank employees are derisive about it. But the poor daily wage earners have no difficulty understanding it."

Perhaps this change in perceptions in urban and rural Bengal point out to a much greater divide in society. When it comes to the question of Bengali identity, the urban elite swear by the legacy of Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Ravishankar and other such icons.

Contrast this with the popular culture at mass level. Take popular cinema, for instance. The Bengali film industry, which is doing roaring business in Kolkata and elsewhere has seen the recent release of a film called 'Challenge Nibi Naa Shalaa, Panga Nibi Naa Shalaa' (I dare you to accept the challenge).

Another Bengali feature film 'MLA Fatakesto', which was a superhit in 2006, was made by its dialogue -- "Maarbo Ekhane, Lash Parbe Shamshane" (I will give you a thrashing here, but your body will automatically reach the crematorium). The popularity of these dialogues is on a par with those of 'Sholay', a Hindi hit film of the 1970s, the dialogues of which were used by one of its protagonists, Dharmendra, in his 2004 campaign as the BJP candidate from Bikaner.

Subrata Sen, a journalist turned filmmaker who has been studying popular culture for some time, admits that there is a strong disconnect between the urban and rural milieu. "Whatever is understood by the 'progressive Left culture' is basically a product of Bengali middle class with a strong urban bias. Rural Bengal does not connect to that," he says.

Precisely for this reason, the Left in Bengal had always been critical of mass popular culture, branding it reactionary.

Achin Chakrabarty, a social scientist associated with the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, points out that Mamata's main campaign slogan — "Maa-Mati-Manush" (Motherland, Land and People) is also borrowed from a hit 'Jatrapala' (a traditional and popular form of drama where the actors play on open stage surrounded by the audience from three sides) of the same title.

"The dominant culture in Jatrapala is to criticise and caricature the present. The hit movies like 'MLA Fatakesto' or 'Challenge…' are nothing but celluloid version of this Jatrapala. That is what make them click with the masses," he says.

He admits that it is hard to quantify the effect of Banerjee's message among the rural people. But he can recognise the similarities in the languages used by popular culture and that used by Banerjee. Banerjee's crude invective against political opponents and her rustic approach to sort out long-standing problems of the state captures the people's imagination and they identify themselves with her causes like they did with actor Mithun Chakravarty in MLA Fatakesto.

The Left in Bengal and also the Congress have always used a common language, though different in content, to convey their politics irrespective of whether the audience is urban or rural. People have got so used to hearing this language from political parties that the Group D employee from Raigunj mentioned above had no difficulty in identifying Banerjee's language as non-political, a language of their own.

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Rajat Roy
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