Is Bengal burning? Uncertainty looms over future elections as poll violence spreads

17 May 2018, 06:11 PM
People injured in poll violence sit by the side of a road as a vehicle is set on fire by locals during panchayat polls in Nadia district of West Bengal (PTI Photo)
People injured in poll violence sit by the side of a road as a vehicle is set on fire by locals during panchayat polls in Nadia district of West Bengal (PTI Photo)

If there’s one state in the country that can be called the cradle of culture and traditions, then it’s Bengal. Bengal finds its mention right from the times of Mahabharata to the struggle of Indian independence to modern day politics. The state has been home to renowned scholars, poets, social reformers, revolutionaries and many more.

The Bengali culture is the sweetest blend of cosmopolitan influence with deeply rooted native beliefs but today when one looks towards the east, a question instantly comes to mind “Is everything OK in Bengal” …may be not, is the answer which the logical mind throws impromptu.
 
When all eyes were glued to even the smallest political developments in Karnataka, an eerie wind was blowing in West Bengal. Karnataka and West Bengal both celebrated the biggest festival of democracy this month. One elected its lawmakers for the state assembly, while the other went for Panchayat elections.

However, while Karnataka elections were largely peaceful, the Panchayat election in West Bengal was marred with bloodshed and protest. Major opposition parties blamed the ruling TMC of using muscle power to ensure victory, an allegation which Mamata Banerjee denied vehemently, instead of putting counter allegations on them.
 
To figure out the root cause of violence during the Panchayat election, one needs to look back at the days of the CPI-M rule in the state.

The CPI-M first came to power in 1977 and ruled for over three decades with Jyoti Basu as the longest serving chief minister. The party became immensely popular among the masses in its initial days because of its land reforms and pro people policies. Further, Bengal’s economy showed signs of economic recovery under the leadership of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who took over the baton from Basu.

The 34 years of CPI-M rule in the state made their cadres so much complacent that they felt there was no alternative to their regime and started to take things for granted, indulging in violence, coercion and apathy towards farmers.

Banerjee, who used to be the face of the Congress in West Bengal, was quick to realise that peasants in the state were emotionally attached to their land and that land reforms were the stepping stones of the CPI-M success, therefore, any issue which could be linked with land would gather immense support. Banerjee, therefore, launched her own party the “Trinamool Congress” under the premise of “Maa, Maati & Manus”- meaning mother, land and people. She started to work aggressively at the grass root level, predominantly in the rural areas and, as seasoned politician, waited patiently for one wrong move of the CPI-M.
 
The first opportunity for the TMC manifested when the West Bengal government decided to set up a chemical hub in Nandigaram by acquiring fertile farming land. A strong farmer movement backed by the TMC forced the government to relocate the project. The left government was again caught on the wrong foot when a massive peasant protest heavily backed by the TMC erupted against land acquisition drive in Singur by the TATAs for their Nano car plant.

The TMC rapidly gained grounds and popularity among the masses. It rose as a party, which advocated the cause of general public and farmers in particular, it became what the CPI-M used to be earlier.

Gradually, there was a huge influx of the CPI-M cadres into the TMC while few of them sought their career in the Congress and the emerging BJP, as they could easily see the Marxist party as the sinking ship. But, what did not change was the psychology of these cadres which rested heavily on intimidation and politics of violence.
 
This is what happened during the West Bengal Panchayat election.

Cadres who joined different parties entered the election arena with the same mindset and what followed was violence, murder, destruction of public property, etc. In fact, 34 per cent of panchayat seats were won by the TMC just because no one contested on those seats or rather no one was allowed to contest, a spectacle which even the Supreme Court couldn’t resist but express its utter surprise. This theory got further validation when the Congress, the BJP and the CPI-M came together to contest against a TMC candidate in spite of having an extreme ideological difference.
 
The Election Commission is yet to declare the results of these elections, no matter which party wins but the loss to life and faith which happened is irreversible. The Lok Sabha 2019 elections are not far away and if it was a curtain raiser then surely the fate of future elections in West Bengal seems to be uncertain.

First Published: Thursday, May 17, 2018 02:54 PM
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