What one saw at Kanthi in East Midnapore district on Tuesday is just the prevue of political violence that may increasingly rock West Bengal as BJP gears up to challenge Trinamool Congress’ exclusive hegemony over the state. With Lok Sabha polls looming large, the pace may quicken. Power has always been synonymous with violence in West Bengal, and each political shift has been accompanied by a spell of escalating brutality and bloodshed, right from the 1960s to this day. The interludes of calm have never been a victory of democracy, but the scrupulous and utter domination of a single party. The price of peace has always been a subversion of democracy in favour of totalitarian control.
Given this backdrop, it isn't difficult to understand why BJP and Trinamool Congress workers clashed soon after Amit Shah’s rally in Kanthi on Tuesday. The BJP is fast rising as the chief opposition party to the ruling TMC, though the term ‘chief opposition’ can be misleading in the context of West Bengal politics. When political power means control of territory through violent, extremist tactics and annihilation of rivals to the point of their extinction, even a nominal rise in BJP’s strength would translate into a threat for the incumbent.
The BJP might still be a distant second in terms of political influence, vote and seat share in the state but its rising profile — and the fact that it has consolidated its strength at the expense of a fast-disappearing CPM and Congress — present a challenge for Mamata Banerjee’s party. The TMC is also aware that BJP will focus exclusively on India’s eastern seaboard states in the upcoming General Election to Lok Sabha to shore up its numbers that it is sure to lose in the Hindi heartland. That places West Bengal, with 42 seats, at the centre of BJP’s attention. The saffron unit has targeted 22 seats from West Bengal. While that may be an exaggerated estimate, there is no question that Shah is desperate to push BJP’s tally into double digits from the two seats that it won in 2014.
Shah had chosen his venue well. Kanthi, the domain of TMC’s Adhikary family who exercises control over the territory through a feudal power structure that mirrors West Bengal’s quasi-democratic feudalism, had seen BJP posting a 23 percent rise in vote share in the 2017 Contai (South) Assembly by-election, almost subsuming CPM and Congress’ vote shares.
Shah’s fiery lecture, where he targeted Mamata for “subverting democracy, siphoning off Centre’s money to syndicates (a euphemism for TMC-controlled groups who allegedly regulate sale of land and construction materials for infrastructure projects through coercion), bomb-making units, lack of industry and letting chit fund operators buy her paintings” was unlikely to go down well with the ruling party.
What ensued is still unclear. The BJP has claimed victimhood, but it is unlikely that its workers were innocent of the violence though it is possible that its karyakartas suffered the major brunt of it. Reports say that minutes after Shah left the podium, several vehicles through which BJP workers have been ferried to the venue were damaged, vandalised or set on fire. BJP has claimed that 200 of its workers were injured among which 50 are battling serious injuries while the TMC has claimed that 12 of its cadres were hurt.
— ANI (@ANI) January 29, 2019
The politics of violence used by the TMC is an evidence of the fear of the BJP that has gripped Mamata & the rest of the opposition in the country. A shameful act by the ruling party workers in Kanthi today. #MamataScaredOfBJP @sambitswaraj @BJP4India @BJYM @AsansolBjp pic.twitter.com/XW6DYCQ4yo
— Babul Supriyo (@SuPriyoBabul) January 29, 2019
What is reasonably clear is that a local TMC office was attacked, and vehicles carrying BJP workers were vandalised, buses stoned, a motorcycle set ablaze while the police failed to act and the Rapid Action Force (RAF) had to be called in.
The situation also triggered an angry exchange of words between Rajnath Singh and Mamata Banerjee. The Union home minister called up the Bengal chief minister “and expressed serious concern over reports of large-scale violence and arson against people who attended BJP’s political rally".
HM spoke to West Bengal CM, Ms Mamta Banerjee and expressed serious concern over reports of large scale violence and arson against people who attended BJP’s political rally in East Midnapore district today. He asked CM that those who indulged in violence should be brought to book
— गृहमंत्री कार्यालय, HMO India (@HMOIndia) January 29, 2019
Mamata, in return, reportedly asked the home minister to “control your leaders and supporters". The tit-for-tat exchange continued with the TMC later serving a legal notice to Amit Shah for alleging Mamata’s paintings were bought by chit fund operators.
Interestingly, while TMC leaders Madan Mitra accused BJP of “orchestrating” the vandalism and arson by “hiring hooligans from Jharkhand”, his party colleague Suvendu Adhikari claimed “BJP workers attacked our party offices and this led to retaliation by our workers. If our party office is attacked are we going to offer sweets?”
Not to be cowed down, BJP’s general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya has "warned" the state government that "BJP workers will neither be scared nor will bow down. This will cost Mamataji,” according to ANI.
The Kanthi incident — the last word of which hasn’t been heard yet — presents a microcosm of the culture of violence that lies at the centre of West Bengal’s electoral politics. The infamous Sainbari massacre occurred in 1970 where two brothers, known to be Congress supporters, were brutally hacked to death in Burdwan, and their mother, a witness to the crime, was made to eat rice soaked in the blood of her murdered sons. The murder accused — Benoy Konar, Nirupam Sen and Anil Bose — went on to occupy ministerial positions in the CPM government. Or, take the killing of nine villagers in Netai hamlet in Lalgarh. These are just two random incidents from a litany of such examples. Violence has become a tool of political control.
A Partha Sarathi Banerjee writes in EPW, “While during the 1972-77 period, the Congress imposed its exclusive rule in West Bengal by using the police and its goons, the CPM exercised its exclusive power by skilful utilisation of its base among the poor combined with a disciplined party organisation. The counter exercise by the TMC follows the latter pattern but with a weaker organisation."
It is likely that West Bengal is staring at another wave of violent upheaval. The tremors will be felt mostly in the rural hinterlands where the ruling party and the government become one — a hegemonic force desperate to retain control as the challenger seeks to defy its writ. Beware of the ides of March.
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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 16:41:45 IST