West Bengal’s 2016 election can be compared to the 1993 blockbuster film Muqabla, with two stereotypical cops – one good and the other bad, a police force that was paralysed into inaction, a bad guy who cannot be arrested and a heroine. The more people voted the more popular the fight or muqabla got; therefore voter rating has been driving the popular perception on a daily basis of the extended seven-day six-phase election. It is seen as a nail-biting race, with a dark horse challenging the favourite.
No guesses are needed on who is who, because each side has a different take on the villains, victims and the vanquished; also because the victor cannot be known till 19 May, the counting day. Impatience is whipping up a frenzied speculation since the official crystal ball gazing can begin only after the 16 May elections are over in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Ingenious poll watchers in West Bengal are swapping numbers, sharing rumours via WhatsApp to keep the pot boiling.
Conversations have become more like carousels flowing in circular loops. But their pace has unexpectedly gained speed because of the piqued interest in the exceptionally long elections. The state is taut with expectation, seeking relief in rumours.
Conspiracy theories and vendetta narratives are replacing the aggressive rhetoric of the campaign. The Trinamool Congress has its own version, in which the Election Commission, opposition and the Congress-Left alliance all figure as fellow conspirators working through pliable policemen, who are “Bhitu (cowards).” This shift in narrative is revealing, because it converts cops from “shob amader lok” (all of them are our people) with a pro-Trinamool “mindset” was pro-Trinamool Congress into turncoats serving the Election Commission and therefore the opposition, including the alliance.
This is Mamata Banerjee’s personal contribution to the deeply divided, intensely antagonistic political discourse in West Bengal. The public is of the opinion that the administration, of which the police are a part, is a partisan corps; even more submissive now than when the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM) led Left Front was in power for 34 years. By branding the police as cowards, Mamata Banerjee has done two things; first, she has stripped the police of any remaining vestiges of professionalism that it may have salvaged after years of being attacked by her as an extension of the ruling party and second she has robbed the police of all credibility in the public.
This has made tracking police response to post-poll intimidation and violence as the newest game in town. By extension, the rest of the administration too has been sucked into this divide as a result of which the credibility of the bureaucracy too has dipped to a new low. To this toxic story, the CPM and its Left Front partners, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, as the principal opposition parties have added their dose of poison.
If the Trinamool Congress wins and returns to power what will it do? The same question applies to the Congress-CPM’s improbable alliance. There are several options. Whichever party or alliance wins, it will first have to placate the police and soothe the bureaucracy in order to run the government. Appeasing the miffed bureaucracy and police has implications for West Bengal’s governance over the next five years. The political-police-bureaucracy nexus cannot be good for the state. If the winner chooses to punish the “bhitu,” as Mamata Banerjee has threatened to do, it would be divisive and potentially volatile. Separating the “bad” from the “good,” “amader lok” from the ‘other’ will split the permanent bureaucracy and police and offer the disgruntled the inducement to undermine governance.
In any eventuality, getting the government to work as a non-partisan system is not going to be easy. The effects of bad-mouthing babudom and the police will take time to wear off. In between, it will be the “Ma, Mati, Manush” of Mamata Banerjee and the “Manusher Jote” of the Congress-CPM alliance that will bear the brunt of the inevitable reprisals that will follow.
Experience of the past five years of divisions and vengeance, of how these play out through the administration and out among the people suggests that it will be expensive in terms of lives, traumas, buyouts and sell-outs.
The price of failure has been paid by the landowners of Singur, both those who sold their land and received compensation in 2006 and those who resisted and formed the core of the Save the Land Committee, which was appropriated by the Trinamool Congress. The price of failure has been paid by women, who have been stigmatised, raped and assaulted and whose safety is no longer assured. The price has been paid by people who have fled their homes and resettled elsewhere in thousands and it has been paid by private and corporate real estate builders.
The cost of division and vengeance has been paid by West Bengal’s youth, the 20-35 year olds, whose prospects have not improved and whose future could be bleak, unless the political class finds by some magic the capacity to reconcile enemies, end confrontations and stop vendettas. Can the Trinamool Congress, CPM, Congress and the BJP do this? Are West Bengal’s leaders capable of doing so?
Updated Date: May 18, 2016 16:32 PM