By Arunoday Majumder
Two concepts – ‘subalternization’ and ‘lumpenization’ – were used extensively in recent post-poll analyses. Credit for introducing both terms to public discourse must go to political scientist, Ranabir Samaddar. The context was the 2016 West Bengal assembly election in which the Trinamool Congress (TMC) scored another victory.
In his interview to ‘The Wire’ (TW), followed by his opinion-editorial in ‘The Indian Express’ (IE), and his commentary in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Samaddar has highlighted a somewhat skewed relevance of these concepts to the study of politics in West Bengal.
If the evaluation of Samaddar is to be conceded, then ‘subalternization’ and ‘lumpenization’ are results of a social mobility that gained momentum during the first term of Mamata Banerjee as chief minister (2011-16). The TMC, under the aegis of its matriarch, Mamata Banerjee, broke the 34-year-old Left Front stranglehold on the state in 2011. In May this year, the TMC won 211 seats out of 295 – a feat that Samaddar has attributed to social mobility ushered by the TMC government in its very first term.
Subalternization and lumpenization, as opposed to ‘proletarianization’, signify a social mobility based on identities which may not necessarily be of the economic variety. The global protests of 1968 had demonstrated that a singularly materialist basis of politics was exclusive and authoritarian[i]. Events of that year forced the entry of the ‘post-material’ and the ‘nomadic’ into the study of social movements (Melucci: 1989). It led to a new sub-field of study in the social sciences – the ‘new social movement’ (Habermas: 1981).
The ascendancy of ‘subalternization’ and ‘lumpenization’ as conceptual tools is a tribute to this history. Subaltern theorist Partha Chatterjee has avoided economic determinism and traced the dynamics of ‘entitlements versus rights’ to examine the politics of the marginalized through his much celebrated concept, “political society” (2004: 27-80). Christophe Jaffrelot, too, has preferred the term “plebeianization” to examine social mobility in the context of caste-ridden India (2010: 411-29).
However, Samaddar challenges the subalternization-lumpenization thesis and attempts a return to the overemphasis on economy in his explanations of the TMC victory.
Samaddar is spot on to suggest that several welfare schemes targeted at the rural poor have earned Mamata Banerjee a second stint as chief minister. These underreported measures extended monthly stipends and cycles to school girls, a relatively hefty grant for girls who refuse marriage after adulthood and continue education, rice and wheat at ₹ 2/kg, unemployment benefits for the youth, and development of public infrastructure in the countryside.
But Samaddar walks on thin ice when he states the following:
Consider the fault lines of Bengal. North versus south, Hindus and Muslims, agriculture versus industry, Kolkata versus the hinterland, upper class and lower class … TMC has managed to create an identity that overcame all these fault lines of politics … This is a new kind of identity which is not ethnic or caste-oriented. This identity in the context of Bengal is aimed at neutralising the deep fault lines of the state – an overarching political notion for the poor. (TW)
It is difficult to sustain this position in the light of facts. No doubt that Mamata Banerjee deployed a rhetoric of welfare and partially executed it for the poor. But she also displayed remarkable wisdom through individual engagement with specific social groups that constitute the poor. Her political engagement was constant with the Namasudra Matua community[ii]. The TMC reaped rich dividends as a result (Daniyal 2016). What also benefitted the TMC was soft attitude towards Muslims in the state (Bhowmick 2016).
In other words, Mamata acknowledged that there is no one category called the poor or “working people” as Samaddar refers to it (IE). What exist are cultural groups. Any attempt to supersede these identities in favour of an overarching economically deprived one is likely to be less successful as the Left Front has realized.
Besides the extension of welfare measures, Samaddar cites the apparent emergence of a certain trend to apply the concept of ‘subalternization’ to contemporary West Bengal:
If you look at the 2011 result, what was the ‘poriborton’ about? It was also about breaking up the Hindu upper caste, intellectual hold on politics. (TW)
This is where Samaddar jumps the gun. It requires imagination to suggest that the upper caste hold on the politics of the state has broken despite contrary evidence in the surnames of top ministers and party leaders – Banerjee Mamata (chief minister, home minister and TMC president), Banerjee Abhishek (viewed as successor designate), Roy Mukul (vice-president and former railway minister), Chatterjee Partha (education minister), Chattopadhyay Sovandeb (mayor of Kolkata corporation and TMC chief whip in the state assembly), Trivedi Dinesh (Rajya Sabha MP, TMC point man in New Delhi and former railway minister), Mitra Amit (finance minister) and Banerjee Kalyan (Lok Sabha MP and TMC legal cell manager). These names have remained mostly unchanged for much of the political career of the TMC despite a few flip-flops.
Each of the above surnames is upper caste and barring Mitra Amit and perhaps Roy Mukul (Roy is largely indicative of Brahmin caste but in some cases it can be Kayastha too), everyone else is visibly Brahmin. Even district satraps from the TMC, like the father-son duo of Adhikari Sisir and Adhikari Suvendu, are members of the upper caste (again, Adhikari is largely indicative of Brahmin caste but in some cases it can be Kayastha too). The irony does not end there. The strongman of the party and the face of TMC muscle is a member of the schedule caste – Mondal Anubrata (Roy 2016). The division of labour within the TMC indicates that caste identity continues to influence occupation within the party.
It is true that none of these men and women has an “intellectual hold” as Samaddar notes. But shady efforts to gain such grasp are not unknown in the TMC. Years ago Mamata Banerjee had made a fake claim of holding a doctoral degree and her education minister is currently battling plagiarism charges against his doctoral thesis (Mudur and Ganguly: 2016). Thus, it is not as if they have renounced their pursuit of cultural capital. They have tried to achieve it by crook and have failed at it.
But most of these upper caste men and women have a strong linkage with the illegal economy in West Bengal characterized by the infamous ‘syndicate raj’ [iii]. In an economy under stagnation for more than three decades, real estate syndicates act as personal fiefdoms with political patronage. Chiefs assure income to loyal armies of the unemployed. The TMC leadership is also embroiled in two major cases of corruption – commonly known as Sarada and Narada scams [iv]. Samaddar has made a curious point in this regard:
Bengal has no public money. Chit funds are one way to make money for some people. In Kerala, chit funds are extremely popular but the state has adequate regulations on it. In Bengal, there are no regulations and the scam broke out. It is only through half-dubious means like the Saradha or Rose Valley that capital is being mobilised in Bengal. (TW)
It is very difficult to understand the economic logic by which small capital is said to have been “mobilized” when all it did was travel circular chains without investments but with leaks. That is exactly why it is criminal. The very fact that there are no state regulations for the private circulation of small capital in West Bengal means that they are ponzy schemes.
So, West Bengal is under the command of upper caste bosses of illegal economic systems. Is this not reminiscent of the feudal model that had dominated much of the eastern region in colonial India? After all, zamindars too were upper-caste rulers of agricultural estates that were promptly done away with after independence.
What may have happened in West Bengal in 2016 is not necessarily a reflection of an unprecedented churning in society. It seems far more likely that a new faction of the traditional caste-class elite has seized power from the previously dominant one. From this perspective, the subalternization-lumpenization thesis is misplaced optimism.
[i] 1968 witnessed worldwide protests that first erupted in universities across Europe. At the core of demands were various legal and cultural issues that included civil liberties, environment, feminism, sexual orientation, war and nuclear weapons. The protests rejected an exclusively materialist interpretation of history that had dominated the intellectual landscape of Europe till then.
[ii] The Namasudra Matua is a dalit community in West Bengal. After decades of marginalization, the community has emerged as a potent political force. For more, see Sinharay 2016.
[iii] ‘Syndicate Raj’ is a popular phrase used to denote strong-arm-tactics in the real estate business of the state.
[iv] The Sarada scam broke out in 2013. Former transport minister and key aide of the chief minister, Madan Mitra, is an accused in the case. He is currently in prison. The Narada scam broke out in March, 2016. A sting operation conducted by a news portal has shown several TMC leaders allegedly accepting cash in exchange of favours from the government to private individuals.
Bhowmick, Sourjya (2016): ‘Malda Riot: Mamata’s Muslim Appeasement is Coming Back to Haunt her’, 08.01.2016, Catch News.
Chatterjee, Partha (2004): ‘Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World’, New York: Columbia University Press
Daniyal, Shoaib (2016): ‘How Mamata Banerjee brought Identity Back into West Bengal Politics (and why that’s a good thing)’, Scroll.in.
Habermas, Jürgen (1981): ‘New Social Movements’, Telos, Vol. 1981, No. 49, pp. 33-7
Jaffrelot, Christophe (2010): ‘Religion, Caste and Politics in India’, New Delhi: Primus Books
Melucci, Alberto (1989): ‘Nomads of the Present’, London: Hutchinson Press
Mudur, G.S. and Ganguly, Arnab (2016): ‘Dr Same-Same Chatterjee’, 13.04.2016, The Telegraph.
Roy, Rajat (2016): ‘In Bolpur TMC Leader Anubrata Mandal Speaks in Ominous Metaphors’, 15.04.2016, The Quint.
Samaddar, Ranabir (2016): ‘Populist Governments with Strong Leaders like Mamata are here to Stay’, 19.05.2016, The Wire.
Samaddar, Ranabir (2016): ‘Poison, Nectar and a Churning’, 20.05.2016, The Indian Express.
Samaddar, Ranabir (2016): ‘West Bengal Elections: The Verdict of Politics’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, No. 24, pp. 23-5
Sinharay, Praskanva (2016): ‘Dalit Question in the Upcoming West Bengal Assembly Elections’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, No. 9, pp. 17-21
Arunoday Majumder is a doctoral candidate (Sociology) at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and an independent media practitioner. firstname.lastname@example.org
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