Bharatiya Janata Party supporters chant slogans as they block Highway 31 during a protest over the ruling Trinamool Congress party at Chopra village in the North Dinajpur, West Bengal. Photo: AFP / Diptendu Dutta
Bharatiya Janata Party supporters chant slogans as they block Highway 31 during a protest over the ruling Trinamool Congress party at Chopra village in the North Dinajpur, West Bengal. Photo: AFP / Diptendu Dutta

In the east Indian state of West Bengal, any election can lead to serious violence and political killings. In one phase of a village council election in May, at least a dozen people were killed in separate incidents of poll-related conflicts.

But leaders of the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress party don’t find the violence striking. “To all ‘newborn’ experts on Bengal #Panchayat Elections in State have a history. 400 killed in poll violence in 1990s in CPIM rule. 2003: 40 dead. Every death is a tragedy. Now closer to normal than earlier times. Yes, few dozen incidents. Say, 40 out of 58,000 booths. What’s %age ?” tweeted senior Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Derek O’Brien.

While some blame the state’s culture of violence on the Left Front’s three-decade-long rule that ended in 2011, others point all the way back to the Congress’ rule in the 60s and 70s.

“Here in West Bengal, no one is connected to the ground reality,” Dr Manas Kumar Ghosh, an Assistant Professor at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University told Asia Times.

Normalization of state violence

“So, they just gather some people and work like machinery. Like how an oppressive state machinery works, a dictatorship works… It has its own police, its own army, but in addition to that it has an organized lumpen force, mercenaries.”

This “lumpen force” has been featured on television wreaking havoc but isn’t claimed by any party. Their victims are civilians and political cadres of both the Opposition and the ruling TMC.

Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Sandhi Mukherjee blamed former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for the rise of “arrogance in politics”. He referred to her move to sideline veteran Congress leaders and establish the Indian National Congress (I), and ultimately imposing a state of Emergency in India in 1975.

“It was a grave misuse of power. People were imprisoned without a reason around the entire country. In ’75 and the following years, new Congress members would go to the police station to give threats and show their dominance,” Mukherjee said.

Police, corruption, and violence

In 1977, the Left Front came to power in West Bengal and gradually normalized the use of muscle during elections. The transition from a violent government to a violent government with passive public acceptance wasn’t simple, however.

After the Emergency, the Janata Party formed the central government and set up the National Police Commission (NPC). It investigated how the police system had been weakened to allow political bodies to take the law into their own hands. “But within a few years Indira Gandhi came back to power, so none of the suggestions of the commission were put into practice,” said Mukherjee.

Then in 1996, two former director-generals of police lodged a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court, asking for implementation of the Commission’s recommendations.

Eventually, in 2006, the Supreme Court issued a seven-point guideline that said every state should have its own State Security Commission to evaluate police work. But experts say no political party has properly implemented these yet.

“Corruption was indirectly made the main attraction for political workers anywhere in this country. If you win a political position, you see that you can earn illegally as you wish and [the] law will not be able to touch you. When such a situation has been created, there will be an immense desire to win elections at any cost. And this is the source of the violence,” Mukherjee said.

Tradition of quashing opposition

Ruling parties in West Bengal also tend to weaken their opposition both inside and outside the assembly.

“The Left Front had 34 years to rid the state of this violence. Not only did they not do that, they were opportunistic and took advantage of violent traditions,” said Dr Ghosh. “After all of that, we have arrived at a place where a party [TMC] is running this state in a completely autocratic fashion. Not many speak up against them in the assembly.”

TMC’s weakening of the Left (the Opposition) is benefitting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is fast emerging as the main opposition party in the state.

“If it becomes a one-on-one fight between TMC and BJP, then as long as the former can hold their vote bank (of around 41%), it’s fine,” said Sambit Pal, senior journalist at Ebela Digital. “But once BJP comes up and starts eating up the Trinamool Congress vote share, there will be a problem.”

West Bengal could, in fact, prove to be fertile ground for a BJP takeover. The BJP has based its politics in the state on illegal immigration from its neighbor Bangladesh. And the party’s reputation for violence doesn’t harm its case. “Violence has its own place in West Bengal,” said Dr Ghosh.

But the nature of the violence is changing. Cases of communal violence have increased since 2014, as seen in Asansol, Basirhat, Kaliachak, and Dhulagarh. “There were several other incidents that didn’t get reported,” said Pal. “People have gotten very polarized as we have seen on social media as well.”

While most such violence is blamed on fringe elements from outside the state, poll results show it’s benefitting the BJP. According to Dr Ghosh, such hatred can create sharp divisions, and help parties concentrate their vote bank.

BJP rising as general election looms

All of this has implications for the national election due next year. “BJP will come up as the main opposition party, they have already. But I don’t think it can gain many seats in West Bengal,” said Pal, who doubts that the BJP cannot topple the TMC government in the next five years.

“BJP has one problem in this state – the leaders they have are absolutely ineffective,” said Dr Ghosh.

While next year’s elections don’t look too good for the BJP, a takeover of the state appears inevitable as the party’s vote share has consistently risen since 2014. The TMC, on the other hand, is yet to project a promising leader who can take the reins after Mamata Banerjee.

“A very daring thought that I have is Mamata Banerjee doesn’t want anyone else to become the Chief Minister from her party. She wants to enjoy this power and then go,” said Pal.

Possible collusion between TMC and BJP

“The central leaders of BJP and RSS [Rahstriya Swayam Sevak Sangh] don’t want to disturb Mamata Banerjee” as there is no ideological clash between the two, he said.

There is a narrative in the state that Mamata Banerjee and the BJP have struck a deal so the former can rule on and the latter can take over after.

What feeds this suspicion is the Central Bureau of Investigation going soft on the Narada and Sarada scam cases despite ample evidence of TMC members playing roles in them. Mukul Roy, a prominent TMC leader embroiled in the Narada case, even changed sides and joined the BJP.

And in light of its unexpected losses in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, the Modi government is expected to increase the pressure on Mamata Banerjee to secure West Bengal for 2019.

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