The beginning of organised power over all of India started from three Bengali villages that included Kalikata, the birthplace of Calcutta. The British East India Company took control of Kalikata in 1690 where Englishmen pitched permanent camp. From 1772 to 1911, the city was the capital of British India, which included all of present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, the Persian Gulf Residency and even Ceylon for a while. Now, a new East India Company with headquarters in (erstwhile) Calcutta has risen with ambitions of creating a new political and geographical empire. At the helm is the indomitable lion slayer Mamata Banerjee, the winner of the Battle of Plassey 2.0 in May, demolishing the saffron horde. Now, her eyes are on all of India.
The past holds lessons for the present, as markers for the future. In 2019, the face of Indian Dalit politics and another woman chief minister, Mayawati, declared her ambition to be prime minister. In 2009, she announced plans to contest 500 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats in the General Election. But it was not enough. In 2017, she retreated to her ivory tower after the mahagathbandhan was routed in Uttar Pradesh. Will Mamata meet a similar fate in the Opposition unity sweepstakes? Her massive three-time victory in the state, overcoming a catcalling, vicious personal campaign, gave her the national stature she never had before. It also brought her a seat at the table of influential veterans like Sharad Pawar. It attracted to her camp a variety of talent from stalwart politicians, civil servants and intellectuals. The TMC represents the Bengali gestalt, which reveres the arts and anglophilia. Unlike Mayawati’s UP, Bengal is considered a national bastion of reform, rebellion and culture: Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Rayetal.
The most important influence in Indian politics was not in Mayawati’s favour—caste. The first political Hindu of India, Mohandas Gandhi, did not favour a Dalit as prime minister, namely Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution. Gandhi saw the Dalits as people to be uplifted, rechristening them Harijans, and even cleaned human excreta alongside them. But he never perceived them as leaders. This subtle transmission of the Gandhian order of power has percolated through the Congress party for generations; until OBC Narendra Modi arrived on the scene, six of India’s mainstream prime ministers were Brahmins.
This is not a comment on the efficiency or integrity of Brahmins as administrators: most of India’s best dewans and ministers, from the royal period to now, were upper castes. Perhaps, Modi marks the beginning of change, but the time for India to accept a Dalit prime minister is yet to come. There go Mayawati’s chances. Mamata on the other hand is a Bengali Brahmin whose image-combo is ‘daughter of the soil’, with her trademark cotton sari and hawai chappals. It may not make her prime minister, but gives her an edge. She has to garner the support of her Opposition colleagues, of whom she is currently the only national brand with the exception of Pawar. She is wary of the Congress, which she knows too well is historically a back-stabbing ally. It has pulled down every government it has supported. The dominant force standing in Didi’s way is also the Congress. And there go her chances.