Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing hard to win power for the first time in elections starting Saturday in West Bengal, the killing fields of Indian politics.
Victory in the eastern state of 90 million people over one of Modi’s most prominent opponents would be a major achievement for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, two years after sweeping to a second term.
Politics in West Bengal, far from the BJP’s Hindi-speaking heartlands in northern India, is a dangerous business, with thousands killed in political violence in recent decades.
Shoubhik Dolai , 26, who died last month, was an activist with the regional Trinamool Congress party headed by Mamata Banerjee, a wily firebrand who has run the state since ending three decades of communist rule in 2011.
“They pumped bullets into him. I did not even know he had died. I got to know when I saw the news on TV,” his mother Sumita said, wiping tears from one end of her dishevelled sari as she clutched a photograph.
“He laid down his life for the sake of the party but no one from the party has come even once to share our grief,” she told AFP in her spartan mud-and-straw house in the village of Makrampur.
Other states going to the polls in the coming weeks include Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as the BJP tries to increase the number of regions it governs – currently 17 out of 36.
Naxalites and communists
Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, a political scientist in West Bengal’s capital Kolkata, said that the state’s bloody politics date back to the late 1960s with the rise of the hard-left Naxalite movement.
“They were great believers in the politics of killings and when the left front (communists) came to power that culture persisted,” he told AFP. “Now the same trend is continuing.”
Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, finally suppressed the Naxalites with a major military operation in 1971 but violence continued to simmer during the 30 years of communist rule.
In one of the most horrific killings, a mob killed two brothers in the 1970s and forced their mother to eat rice smeared in their blood.
Banerjee brought an end to the bloody period of communist rule in 2011, drawing support from the rural masses and Muslims who make up more than a quarter of the state’s population.
Hung from trees
History appears to be repeating itself now with Trinamool locked in a pitched battle of political dominance with the BJP.
The BJP alleges that over 100 of its workers have been killed over the last two years, with the Trinamool also making similar claims.
Activists from both parties have been shot or hacked to death, their bodies sometimes hung from trees.
Crude bombs, available on the black market for as little as 100 rupees ($1.40), have also been used to kill, maim or intimidate voters.
The mutilated body of one BJP activist, Sukhdev Pramanik was found face-down in a pond in the village of Chandpara in December.
Street fighting sister
Called a “mercurial oddball” and “shrieking street fighter” by her critics, Banerjee, 66 – nicknamed “Didi” (“big sister”) – is doing all she can to keep the BJP at bay.
But the BJP, which made inroads in the state in national elections in 2019, is whipping up Hindu sentiment as it seeks, like elsewhere, to polarize the electorate on religious lines, critics say.
Arati Jerath, a political analyst in Delhi, said that Banerjee has been at the forefront of trying to form an “anti-Modi opposition front.”
“Conquering her would put an end to that kind of challenge,” she told AFP.
“Winning Bengal for a right-wing party like BJP will be the ultimate vanquishing of the left. The left is their prime enemy in ideological terms.”