Judging by the way the media, particularly the national television channels, is describing the violence in West Bengal, it seems that the state is burning, and only the Centre’s intervention can restore normalcy. The actual violence in West Bengal and the hysteria around it together pose a challenge to the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. While she is known to be a street smart politician, Banerjee is caught in more than one difficult predicament: Tackling the BJP; taking a decision on deploying the full range of security forces in the trouble spots and dealing with the Centre’s aggressive postures. She has to decide if the current conflagration is a law and order problem or one that demands political solutions. Banerjee has to find ways to keep communal politics at bay. But should that be done by promoting tolerance and encouraging participation in various. Religious activities or should she adopt a policy of secularism and come down hard on fundamentalists?
Except in the Darjeeling hills where the torching and burning of government property has been a daily occurrence and four (according to some accounts, seven) people have died in the renewed Gorkhaland agitation — with the state police claiming it did not open fire — the actual violence has not been enormous. In Basirhat, in the first two days of communal trouble, houses were torched and one person died. The police, but more crucially the local people, brought the situation under control. Yet given the hysteria worked up on the ground, including by right-wing forces, one wonders how long the state government can keep on fire-fighting.
Clearly, the state government as well as the party in office in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), have not been adequately prepared to deal with the situation politically. In both Darjeeling and Basirhat, it faces a serious political challenge. The government will only harm itself if it is overconfident and does not augment its political preparedness. A measured response is the need of the hour. Herein lies the problem.
The TMC government is a populist government. It enjoys the confidence of the people because it has initiated several “pro-people” measures. The social churning in Bengal in the past seven to 10 years has thrown up many new leaders from the lower classes of society. This churning has also given rise to illegal elements. The TMC government is seen as anti-communal and has the support of minority groups. It has also been able to create a Bengali identity above caste, locality and religion. But the TMC’s politics remains thin, pragmatic, issue-oriented, minimal and tactical.
This is essentially a response of the lower classes to the ravages and uncertainties of globalisation. It does not, and cannot, think beyond the immediate. It cannot strategise administration, which remains largely informal, person-oriented, and, at times, direct. This is a politics untutored in formal modes. Herein lies its relevance as well as its grave limitation — particularly in light of the challenges it faces amid political and economic change.
This style of administration was evident in the way the chief minster announced the state’s new language policy. About a month and a half back, she suddenly declared that Bengali would be compulsorily taught in all schools in West Bengal. However, as if in a premonition of things to come, she added that West Bengal respected all languages — languages of all states — and the three-language formula of the state showed what the government really wanted. The announcement required greater consultation and deliberation. Given the conflict in the Darjeeling hills and the stand-off between the government and the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), more consultations with various segments of the society were required.
In a similar manner, on May 29, the CM suddenly declared that the government would hold some of its cabinet meetings in the Darjeeling hills. Amidst the tension and signs of renewal of the conflict, this announcement was seen as the government imposing its presence in the hills. The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) was not informed officially. It was an administrative decision taken in a populist manner. The government’s intentions were good but the decision was taken without proper deliberation. It misfired.
Such sudden decisions also betray the government’s overconfidence. This is typical of populist politics, which is always sure of its efficacy and does not have any doubt as to whether the people — that mysterious category — may indeed think differently. The government became overconfident of its strength in the hills after the TMC won the last civic polls in Mirik, and did well in the civic elections in the hills. It thought that the moderates were on its side. But the government had pushed the GJM into a corner and the latter decided to strike back. Restoring stability in the hills will now be a difficult task.
The government faces a similar dilemma with respect to handling the aggressive forces that want to “save the endangered Hindus”. On the occasion of Ram Navami, they carried swords and other weapons in processions and dared the CM to take steps. With the government wary that any strong action may prove counterproductive, the political leaders of the Right were allowed to do as they liked. To make matters worse, in various places, TMC leaders organised Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations. This was a repeat of an old Congress practice: Soft communalism to counter extreme communalism. It never worked for the Congress. It will not work now.
An alert police force has, on several occasions, prevented a communal conflagaration. Yet the government has neither been firm nor exercised caution. In Basirhat, the people with the help from the administration regrouped to restore peace. But the government’s political and administrative preparedness left much to be desired. All this is exacerbated by the self-destructive desire of the TMC to be preponderant in every part of the state. This, in effect, destroys all chances of dialogue. The West Bengal government shows no sign of realising that the chief minister’s plebiscitary style does not always work. Developmental policies and populist measures alone cannot cope with the challenges of contentious politics. A government that does not have a road map to deal with such politics will face a tough time.