This is how politics will be played out in Bengal in the days to come whatever the outcome of the elections – violently.
The second round of voting that began this morning was barely underway when television channels started showing images of election agents of political parties, primarily opposition parties, bleeding profusely, men in lungis freely striding about with guns in hand, heated exchanges between voters and nonchalant policemen, angry voters venting their spleen in front of the cameras, bomb explosions being explained away as acts to chase away rogue elephants, complaints from people and opposition leaders about the absence of central forces juxtaposed against ruling party candidates feigning complete ignorance of any troublesome incident anywhere, so on and so forth.
This is the immediate result of an emboldened opposition and a wary ruling party feeling the heat of an unexpected alliance, an embarrassing sting operation and a disastrous collapse of a flyover. Not surprisingly, the complaints of violence by Trinamool goons are coming from constituencies where there is a perception of two contending sides being equally poised.
Bengal is no stranger to political violence. In fact, despite all the claims of culture, erudition and sensitivity made by Bengalis on their behalf and their timidity and lack of martial spirit their critics love to poke fun at, violence has been the hallmark of politics in Bengal for ages. Pre-Independence it was the "revolutionaries" – much admired by one and all despite their utter incompetence, almost invariably ending up missing their targets and killing unintended victims instead. Then there was the widespread scepticism of Gandhi’s non-violence and misplaced faith in Subhas Bose and his dreams of wresting India back from its colonial masters through armed insurrection.
Poll violence, pre-poll, post-poll and during the actual polling, is not unknown either. Still, the violence we are witnessing today brings back memories of 1972, when the Congress under Siddhartha Sankar Ray, ably aided by a group of young Turks that included current Trinamool leaders like Subrata Mukherjee, practically forced the opposing Left to go underground to live to fight another day, even front-ranking leaders like Jyoti Basu.
That tradition has gone from strength to strength since, irrespective of the party in power. When the Trinamool Congress won its historic victory in 2011, there were apprehensions about a 1972 like bloodbath of Left workers and while there were acts of revenge here and there and senior Left leaders humiliated openly things weren’t as bad as was feared. Mamata Banerjee herself gave a call to her men and women to restrain themselves from acts of revenge. Whether it was her directive or because the TMC’s victory was so comprehensive and the CPI(M) goons switched sides so quickly one doesn’t know, but the fact is violence did not reach Bengal’s usually high benchmark.
In elections since 2011, there have been too many instances of booth capturing and false voting and legitimate voters being denied a chance to cast their ballot, but the fear tactics of the ruling party was so effective and the opposition’s morale so low that actual incidents of poll violence remained within Bengal’s lax acceptable limits.
But this time round, the Left and the Congress are refusing to slink away quietly; they are determined to put up a fight. Even their supporter are unafraid enough to show their faces and complain vociferously against the ruling party in front of TV cameras. Many complaints came from CPI(M) leader and chief architect of the Left-Congress alliance Surjya Kanta Mishra’s constituency where Mamata Banerjee had concluded the campaigning with a promise to do give anything to its voters as long as they defeated her bête noire.
And there are still five more rounds of voting to go till polling ends on 5 May. While the next couple of rounds that are slated to be held in north Bengal will hopefully be more peaceful because the TMC is in a relatively weak position there compared to the Congress Left combine, the more the elections come travel to the southern parts of the state, where the two sides are equally poised with adequate access to goons on both sides, the more the violence will increase.
The first round of voting went off more or less peacefully because the areas that went to polls that day were seen as a Trinamool stronghold and despite evidence of ridiculously high voting in several booths (some booths recorded 100 per cent voting with votes of the dead too duly recorded) the opposition parties were reasonably contented that the voting had gone along expected lines.
That may well have rung warning bells amongst the ruling party. The second round also includes constituencies that are seen as fiefdoms of some of TMC’s celebrated musclemen but where some heavyweight candidates of the opposing alliance are putting up a determined fight. Little wonder, these areas have already been marked by murder, violent clashes, voter intimidation in the last few days where both sides stand accused.
The tragedy is, there is little chance of the violence abating even after the results. The opposition’s blood is up, they are not going to give in with grace to defeat; their victory, CPM leader Mohammad Selim has already threatened, will lead to a accounting of all they had to suffer under TMC rule. On their part, the TMC will no longer be in a mood to be magnanimous in victory this time round even if it wins convincingly again; while, as is most likely, a return to power by the TMC with a reduced number of seats will mean the eyeball to eyeball confrontations will continue, bidding goodbye to any hope of peace and progress in the years to come.