No one familiar with West Bengal would have been surprised by the news reports about violence and allegations of vote-rigging during the Kolkata municipal elections on December 19. Bombs were hurled, polling agents were thrashed and several opposition candidates (opposition to the Trinamool Congress—TMC—which is in power in the state) had to be hospitalized.
Bengalis were even treated to the unique sight of leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI(M)) and the Congress sitting together in dharna, protesting against violence by the ruling party cadre, vote-rigging and police inaction.
TMC’s victory could hardly have been bigger—it won 134 of the 144 seats.
So this may be a good time to look at the history of poll violence and vote-rigging in West Bengal. They are marked by more intelligence and innovation than in most other Indian states.
The CPI(M), which came to power in 1977 and ruled till 2011, was the pioneer of “scientific rigging”, a term that most people of Bengal know well. The party transcended primitive stuff like “booth capturing”—armed goons taking over polling stations and stuffing ballot boxes with fake votes. That was for the Wasseypur-ish gangs, not the well-educated Communist leaders.
After a close study of voting patterns, the party/ government would simply make sure that the names of thousands of suspected non-Left voters were taken off the voter lists. This was reinforced with intimidation—threats, beatings, boycott of businesses. These were the days before voter cards, and when the Election Commission rarely barked and never bit.
Before the election, in semi-urban and rural areas, the party cadre would visit the homes of local anti-Left influencers and politely present widows’ garments to their wives and say: “Didi, you know what will happen to your husband on poll day. So, as your well-wishers, we want to make sure that you have a white saree.” This would do the trick in many cases. The practice continues till today, though it’s no longer the CPI(M) which does it.
Innovative tactics were deployed on election day, and I have personally witnessed these in the 1990s. These methods were used with precision in constituencies where the CPI(M) had a low probability of winning.
For instance, on election day, as the lines lengthened at the polling stations, a bomb or two would be hurled some distance away, making sure no one was hurt, and panic would be spread—armed mobs are coming, three people have been killed! Many would-be-voters would scurry home.
Then, there was “booth jamming”. Party cadre would pack the voting lines early and, through what is known as “time-wasting tactics” in cricket, slow down the process. The queue would grow longer, the sun would get harsher. Non-diehard voters would decide that exercising their democratic right was not worth the effort and go home. Their votes would then be cast by the party cadre.
But the strong-willed persevered. So the “fake voter” move would be made (this move has been retired now, because all of us have voting cards). You are two steps from the table in the polling station where your name would be checked for you to vote. The CPI(M) polling agent would object—you are a fake voter, you are not the person you claim to be. You would then be sent home to return with some identity proof. How many of these people would collect their ration card or passport and come and stand at the end of the two-hour-long queue again?
One couldn’t but grudgingly admire the cunning of the people who thought up these tactics. No laws were being broken and there was no actual violence.
The TMC ousted the CPI(M) in 2011 and keeps on winning because it succeeded in recruiting most of the Left party’s “enforcers”. But while the party has moved much more leftward in its policies than the CPI(M), I am told by my Kolkata-based friends that it seems to have abandoned its predecessor’s subtle election management techniques (other than the “widow” one). It appears to rely primarily on brute force. This is easier and simpler, especially with a compliant police force.
The police bit doesn’t work so well during Lok Sabha and assembly elections, because there is extensive deployment of Central paramilitary forces in West Bengal during these polls, but in municipal elections, like the one held last Sunday, it is extremely effective. As per tradition, Section 144—not more than four people permitted to assemble—is imposed on a 200-meter-radius circle around any polling station during an election. This was widely flouted in the municipal polls and some of the violence seems to have taken place with the police as by-standers.
In any case, a pall of fear may have been hanging over non-TMC voters. In the assembly elections held earlier this year, the CPI(M) and the Congress were decimated and the BJP emerged as the principal opposition party. Post-results, a wave of violence was unleashed on BJP supporters across the state. Many were killed, houses burnt down, shops looted, ration cards confiscated and thousands had to flee their homes. Astonishingly, this went almost unreported in the national media. And the BJP leadership and the Central government seem to have done little to help the distressed. How many common citizens will now dare to defy the TMC cadre’s diktats?And it is not only BJP supporters. Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the CPI(M) tweeted, with graphic visuals of corpses and looted houses: “Are these reports of gruesome violence in Bengal TMC’s ‘victory celebrations’? Condemnable. Will be resisted and rebuffed.” But in today’s West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s party seems to have achieved almost a monopoly on political violence.
Are these reports of gruesome violence in Bengal TMC’s ‘victory celebrations’?Condemnable.
Will be resisted & rebuffed.
Instead of focusing on combating the pandemic TMC unleashes such mayhem.
CPI(M), as always, will be with the people to protect, assist, providing relief. pic.twitter.com/zZUSfNH4wn
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) May 3, 2021
My Kolkata friends tell me that the opposition’s campaign in the Kolkata municipal elections was timid. But can one blame the campaigners? Or the non-TMC voters who dared not step out to vote, wary of reprisals, when the victims of the post-assembly-election violence did not get any redressal?There is no doubt that TMC would have won the Kolkata election, but the massive majority may owe something to plain and simple fear.