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Last Updated : May 17, 2019 02:53 PM IST | Source:

Politics | The takeaways from the violence in West Bengal

Mamata Banerjee fears that a victory for the BJP — even in a handful of seats — will ring alarm bells for her party in the 2021 assembly polls. Over the years, the BJP has emerged as the main challenger to the TMC.

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West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee . (Reuters)
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee . (Reuters)

Shekhar Iyer

When the rest of India has managed to have a relatively peaceful Lok Sabha election, West Bengal has shocked everyone with its attacks on candidates, polling booths, central police forces and even roadshows and rallies of top leaders during its seven-phase voting drill.

Deluged by complaints from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Election Commission of India (ECI) has had to even curtail the campaign by 20 hours.

The ECI also transferred two key aides of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who were accused of running the local law enforcement machinery to coerce TMC’s political opponents and intimidate voters.

The violence in the state hit a crescendo during a roadshow by BJP President Amit Shah in Kolkata on May 15. Clashes broke out between TMC and BJP supporters and in the process the bust of famous reformist Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), placed inside a college in his memory, was vandalised.

Both parties blamed each other for the vandalism; Mamata blamed the BJP for “trampling” upon Bengal’s pride and culture, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi put the onus on Mamata and her supporters. Modi also promised to install a bigger statue for Vidyasagar, a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance.

This episode brought out the contours of West Bengal’s current political battle: A well-entrenched regional party, headed by an ambitious satrap, has been resisting the possibility of a national party gaining acceptability among the people as an alternative option, filling the vacuum left behind by the Communists who ruled for three decades and their predecessor, the Congress.

High stakes

Bengal sends 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha — the third largest number of MPs after Uttar Pradesh (80) and Maharashtra (48). In 2014, the TMC won 34 seats while the BJP won only two. This time the BJP is not likely to win as many seats as it did from the heartland in 2014. To make up for these losses, the party leaders have been extensively focusing on West Bengal and Odisha where it was the runners-up in many constituencies in 2014. Riding high on the ‘Modi wave’ the BJP polled nearly 17 per cent votes in 2014. Subsequently, in the 2016 assembly polls, the BJP secured just over 10 per cent, which renewed Mamata’s hold over voters.

However, in 2018 panchayat polls, which was marred by violence, saw the BJP win 18 per cent of the seats, giving it a confidence to prepare for the Lok Sabha polls. Panchayats in West Bengal are seen as powerful tools to control at the ground level. The BJP claimed 52 of its workers were killed in the run up to the panchayat polls. The TMC countered the claim by saying it lost 14 of its workers. The levels of violence was so unprecedented that there were unusual sights of candidates of BJP, Congress and Left candidates going together to file their nominations to avoid attacks by the TMC.

The three parties approached the courts as civic polls are conducted under the watch of the state election department and not the ECI. The three parties together blamed Mamata’s TMC for the threats and violence—which ensure that the TMC won 34 per cent of seats uncontested.

After the panchayat polls, and in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, political violence claimed many lives when supporters of the BJP, the Congress, the Left and the TMC clashed at various places. Among those who lost their lives were students, teachers, labourers, farmers, and shopkeepers.

Mamata’s ambition in Delhi

Today, the battle for West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats is also about Mamata’s hope to pitch fork herself as a potential prime ministerial candidate in the event of the numbers game not going in the BJP’s favour. With 30-plus seats in her kitty, Mamata hopes to be naturally considered a PM candidate since the other contenders — Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, N Chandrababu Naidu, K Chandrasekhar Rao — cannot hope to have their party’s tallies higher than hers, barring, of course, the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress.

Mamata also fears that a victory for the BJP — even in a handful of seats — will ring alarm bells for her party in the 2021 assembly polls. Over the years, the BJP has emerged as the main challenger to the TMC. She has seen that the BJP has been able to draw to its fold workers from her party and other parties, primarily the CPI(M) in South Bengal. Many BJP candidates in the Lok Sabha polls today are disgruntled leaders from the TMC and the CPI(M).

Didi in Bengal

The irony of it all is that when Didi, as Mamata is called, ended the 34-year entrenched rule of the Marxists in West Bengal, she had given a call ‘Bodla Noy, Bodol Chai’ (We Want Change, Not Revenge). She had herself faced a life-threatening assault from CPI(M) goons in Kolkata way back in August 1990. She had even paraded in Delhi — more than once — victims of the Left terror tactics who had lost their limbs and fingers because they dared not to vote for the Communists. Sadly even her first term (2011-2016) proved to be a repeat of what was witnessed under the Left rule from 1977 till 2011.

In fact, the CPI(M) had to bear the brunt of violence unleashed by TMC goons in rural and suburban Bengal. The Left was forced to retreat in the wake of the murder of its lower-rung leaders. (The National Crime Research Board showed that Bengal topped the chart for political murders in 2013, accounting for 25 per cent of such crimes in India.)

Undeterred by violence, the BJP has shown that it can challenge her rule, by seeking a foothold in the villages. Unfortunately, with the import of disgruntled TMC leaders and cadre, the local BJP did not shy away from using violence to resist the ruling party. The TMC has also accused the BJP of fomenting religious trouble. The BJP’s campaign got a boost as Mamata feared losing the Muslim votes on her side and came with measures such as pensions for maulvis.

The BJP expanded its base in districts where a Hindi-speaking population was on the rise. It also articulated concerns in the bordering districts, where an unchecked influx from Bangladesh created local problems. Restrictions over the Durga Puja celebration (because of Muharram) and Saraswati Puja sharpened the communal divide, and helped the BJP agenda. Mamata’s vehement opposition to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and support for the Rohingya Muslim immigrants further polarised the people.

BJP’s Bengal connection and outsider tag

The BJP has been at pains to reject Mamata’s charge that it is an outsider party. It has pointed out that its current foray has a lot to do with the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s roots in the state. Mookerjee had resisted the second Partition of Bengal. He came under the influence of RSS founder KB Hedgewar who studied medicine in Bengal. In fact, the RSS began its Hindutva work in 1950s in West Bengal.

The BJS, as an earlier avatar of the BJP, won two Lok Sabha seats and nine assembly seats in first elections in 1952. However, it was not until 1998 that the BJP could register victory when Tapan Sikdar won the Dum Dum seat. He held on to the seat till 2004. Dum Dum is one of the nine Lok Sabha seats going to the polls on May 19.

History of violence in Bengal

Many Bengal analysts have pointed out that right from 1947 the state’s politics has witnessed violence, beginning with the ‘Tebhaga movement’. It was an uprising of sharecroppers demanding higher returns from the produce of the land they cultivated in undivided north Bengal. The rights over the land was also the core issue that saw an uprising by armed peasants in the small north Bengal village of Naxalbari against landlords in March 1967.

That became the Naxal Movement in Bengal, in which many students, intellectuals, political activists and policemen lost lives as it was suppressed by the Congress government headed Siddhartha Shankar Ray. That period, according to the CPI(M), witnessed the killing of about 7,000 Communist workers by ‘Consals’ — a term of used for surrendered Naxalites who backed Ray’s Congress.

The Left ended the Congress rule in 1977, undertook land reforms through ‘Operation Barga’. Sharecroppers (bargadars) became owners of land, bringing electoral dividend year-after-year until Jyoti Basu’s long rule also set industrial Bengal on the decline. Mamata entered the scene with a bang by steering the Singur and Nandigram land agitations against the Left government’s decision to hand over agricultural land for industry.

These agitations saw the Left accuse Mamata of taking help of the Maoists. Several incidents of large-scale political violence and killings rocked the state.

Does it mean that a peaceful conduct of elections — whether for the panchayat, assembly or Lok Sabha — will remain a distant hope?

Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal.

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First Published on May 17, 2019 02:53 pm
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