Poll violence does not really shock anyone in Bengal
Every seat counts for the Congress if it wants to lead a coalition, which is what its manifesto seeks to achieve
Poll violence in Bengal is a known malady — though never admitted in public by bhadralok of all camps
Whoever wins most of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats this time should remember that the bombs will be ticking for them too
Central security forces were sent to West Bengal as early as two months before the Election Commission announced the dates of the seven-phase parliamentary polls that begin on April 11 and end on May 19. The jawans have since been staging route marches and area-domination exercises everywhere — from the once Maoist-overrun western districts of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura to even middle-class localities in Kolkata.
The immediate provocation was the allegation of the Opposition that the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) would never allow fair elections. In the May 2018 panchayat polls, about 34 per cent of the seats went to the TMC uncontested—rivals were not even allowed to file nomination papers.
Since the panchayat elections were fought on the issue of rural development, Anubrata Mandal, Birbhum district president of the TMC and a blue-eyed boy of Mamata Banerjee, asked opposition candidates not to venture out as unnayan (development) would be lying in wait.
But can Mamata Banerjee alone be accused of bringing in violence to protect her dominance? Poll violence in Bengal is a known malady — though never admitted in public by bhadralok of all camps. Why? A middle class that only has art and culture to showcase since Independence can’t really admit that violence in different shapes and of varying scale has always been part of their culture.
From Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath on the Sannyasi Revolt of the late 18th century and the terrorist groups during the freedom struggle to the Naxalite movement of the late 1960s and early 70s, violence has always been the theme around which politics has played out in Bengal. It’s been said the three things that dominate life in Bengal are rosogolla, hilsa and bombs.
The first question that comes to both the voter and the voteseeker’s mind here is how effective are the weapons and action squads of a particular political party. The parties know that power flows from fright, created not only by the gun but also by other life-taking devices, such as crude bombs, small arms and even knives and swords. On election day in 1977, this writer witnessed vans and jeeps full of armed cadres of the Congress (I) were roaming around the booths, scaring away voters, while CPI(M) cadres — calm and focused — herded committed voters to their assistance booths where workers were smearing coconut oil on the forefingers, so the ink mark could be wiped away.
But even the CPI(M), once in power, steadily built a formidable arsenal and took shortcuts. As long as violence was judicious, the party ruled the roost – for 34 years. But first Singur and then Nandigram changed the scene rapidly.
The farmer, the slum dweller, the clerk, the small shopkeeper, the roadside hawker, the unemployed, and the army of domestic helps who commute to Kolkata homes of the bhadralok every morning from distant villages then lost faith in the red flag, and needed a face that spoke their language. Enter Mamata Banerjee.
Subsequently, the Trinamool learnt the trick well too and turned out to be more effective since they didn’t have to live up to the democratic and ideological commitments of the bhadralok class. The party just wants to be in power for all-round ‘development’.
Now, the situation is such that even the BJP is looking at tricksters and bahubalis, such as former Trinamool MLA Arjun Singh, who is contesting against the party’s old faithful Dinesh Trivedi, to face the challenge. The Congress can fight back in pockets, such as former state party chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury’s constituency, Bahrampur. The CPI (M) is keen on the dual strategy of guerilla warfare in the rural areas and the victim card the urban ones.
But whoever wins most of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats this time — and in the state elections in 2021 — should remember that the bombs will be ticking for them too.
(Debjyoti Chakraborty is a senior journalist)
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