The politics of roshogolla: Why Mamata Banerjee needs more than a food metaphor this election

Her invoking the sweet at a rally carries a wealth of meaning, but the BJP is gaining an edge in Bengal on several fronts.

WrittenBy:Kishalay Bhattacharjee
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The last time Bengal went to court over roshogolla was nearly two years ago during a pitched battle with Odisha over the origin of this famed sweet. Bengal won the legal battle though Odisha still claims its a 12th century Oriya invention as ambrosia for Lord Jagannath, while Bengal is firm that it was created in the 19th century in Calcutta’s Baghbazar by Nabin Chandra Das and, therefore, remains the state’s sweetest identity.

The roshogolla has a curious history. In 1965, Congress chief minister and reportedly Mamata Banerjee’s political mentor Prafulla Chandra Sen had banned the sweet under the Channa Sweets Control Order. In Bengal, that symbolised the failure of the state, and Sen’s food policies eroded his party’s base, leading to the rise of the Left. Historically, the roshogolla in the state has triggered mutinies.

In the 2021 election, however, the Bengali roshogolla has been launched to fight the Gujarati dhokla. Mamata Banerjee took the sweet metaphor a step further when she said the BJP will draw a blank in the political arithmetic. “A leader today said his party will win 26 seats [in phase one],” she said at a public meeting in March. “Why did he leave the remaining seats? Why didn’t he claim winning all 30 seats? Did he leave those for the Congress and the CPIM? You [the BJP] will get a big roshogolla.”

In colloquial Bengali, this is common usage for getting “zero”.

The syrupy dumpling made an appearance during the 2019 election too in the same spirit, but it was then contesting the illusory Dilli ka laddu. Banerjee must remember that the BJP then won 18 of 42 Lok Sabha seats. Given Bengal’s one-party voting pattern and the BJP’s visible footprint in 2021, the bland dhokla may well hit the sweet spot.

The last time these two identity markers kicked off a food war was when another Banerjee won the Nobel Prize for economics.

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Since 2019, the dhokla and thepla have managed to usurp political space in Bengal. And if one believes the reports emerging from the ground, the last few rounds of polling suggest a fight that will go down to the wire.

Blue economy

Bengal’s other glorious identity is the fish. While the BJP is getting used to the “ma, mati, mansgho” (mother, land and meat) culture of the state – the TMC’s slogan is “ma, mati, manush” – prime minister Modi’s biggest push is actually the blue economy, underlined yet again in this year’s union budget.

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In West Bengal, the prime minister announced a direct benefit transfer of Rs 6,000 to those dependent on the sea for livelihood. The fishing community seems to have welcomed Modi’s appetite for fish.

Early last year, Modi also announced the launch of a Rs 20,000 crore Matsya Sampada Yojana for the benefit of lakhs of fisherfolk. In no uncertain terms, Modi wants India to become a processed seafood hub and meet the demands of seaweed farming. Given Bengal’s fish obsession, the “blue revolution” seems apt for the BJP’s aspirations in the state. As a Bengali might say, it’s like “macher tele mach bhaja” – frying fish in its own oil!

Apart from his love for the fish economy, Modi is also acutely aware of the Bengali fetish also ilish or hilsa, the indisputable first among fish. Bangladesh has used hilsa diplomacy time and again, lifting the ban on exports temporarily in 2019 as a gift to Bengal ahead of prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India. The Teesta water-sharing treaty continues to be a thorn in the bilateral relations between the two countries and Mamata Banerjee remains the barrier in this agreement. Modi way well trade hilsa for bilateral relations, and Bengal wouldn’t mind casting an ilish vote.

The case of chhitmahals

One of the most significant achievements of Modi’s first term was the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh over the ridiculous chhitmahals or enclaves. The enclave residents are India’s newest voters and this is only the second time they are voting. Some are despondent, while others are excited at the possibilities.

Folklore says that the chhits, or enclaves – pieces of foreign land within another country – were a result of chess matches between the Raja of Cooch Behar and the faujdaar of a district in Mughal Bengal with local villages as wager. There are other less interesting historical accounts on how the formation of these settlements were not resolved during Partition and festered for decades.

Most residents died after never casting a vote. But now, they can. And the happiest are the people of Bangladeshi enclaves within India who opted for Indian citizenship because they continue to live on their ancestral land and enjoy Indian citizenship. They say they shall vote for Modi.

As for the Indian enclave settlers within Bangladesh, who had to leave their land to opt for Indian citizenship, they are bitter. Though they have been rehabilitated, they demand adequate facilities and employment. No political parties, however, have campaigned in these enclaves or rehabilitation camps.

These areas polled in the fourth phase of the election in North Bengal’s Cooch Behar and Alipurduar districts, where 14 seats are at stake. In 2019, the TMC lost both parliamentary seats and the tension here is palpable. On the day of polling, four people were shot dead when CISF personnel guarding the polling booth opened fire after a mob allegedly attacked them.

These districts which adjoin Bangladesh and are close to Nepal and Bhutan are of extremely high strategic importance to India. Cooch Behar had a Kamtapuri separatist movement by the Rajbonshis while the Naxalite movement started here half a century ago and got its name from Naxalbari village (now in Darjeeling district). But development is sluggish and the communities are marginalised. Mamata Banerjee spent a good deal of her campaign here but anti-incumbency may come in the way.

Cyclone Amphan

It will be a year since the costliest super cyclone in recent times hit West Bengal, tearing into North and South 24 Parganas and East Midnapore districts. Though the Sundarbans delta was the worst hit, Kolkata wasn’t spared. Thousands of trees were uprooted and parts of the city were in darkness for days.

Mamata Banerjee was in the eye of this storm, apprehensive of her political fortunes. She estimated the loss at over Rs 100,000 crore. The wind ripped through major TMC strongholds and with the pandemic panic, relief efforts were hit. But survivors won’t forget the devastation that easily and the government will be blamed.

Since 2009’s Cyclone Aila, this basin has witnessed around 15 cyclonic storms and the rebuilding efforts have been grossly inadequate. The BJP has campaigned around the misuse of disaster relief funds. Voters affected by the cyclone claim the government’s offer of a one-time rebuilding compensation of Rs 20,000 never arrived. As a result, this sentiment – of “let us try a new dispensation and if they fail, we will vote them out of power” – seems to be dominant in Bengal.

So, Mamata’s trouncing of the Left might be her sweetest moment. But this time around, she’ll need more than metaphors to savour the roshogolla.

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