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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

What post-poll violence tells us about politics in Bengal

Contemporary politics in West Bengal negates the state's progressive legacy.

Written by Dr Rakesh Sinha |
Updated: May 13, 2021 10:33:36 am
MHA team along with police personnel conduct investigation on post-poll violence in West Bengal, in Birbhum (PTI)

The magnitude and brutality of the post-poll violence in West Bengal is an indicator of the extent of partisan polarisation, so much so that rivals are considered enemies. However, it would be inappropriate to describe the premeditated incidents merely as a collapse of law and order or a result of localised political rivalries. They are symptoms of a decline of democracy: Such incidents, which carry political patronage, betray the principles as well as conventions of Indian democracy. Political parties give legitimacy to each other and rightly assume that the circulation of leaders and parties is inevitable in a vibrant Indian society. Jawaharlal Nehru’s compliment to Atal Bihari Vajpayee can be cited in this regard. Nehru predicted Vajpayee would one day become Prime Minister, despite his explicit abhorrence of the latter’s ideology. Moreover, there was a huge gap between Nehru’s Congress and Vajpayee’s Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJS) in terms of vote shares in the 1957 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress and BJS secured, respectively, 47.8 per cent votes and 371 seats and 5.98 per cent votes and four seats.

The contestations and confrontations based on mutual legitimacy strengthen democracy. They provide courage to the smallest party and individual leader to oppose the dominant force and also allow forces that are poles apart to come together when needed: For example, in 1967, the Communist Party of India joined coalition governments in multiple states with the right-wing Swatantra Party. It is this flexibility that differentiated Indian democracy from other newly independent nations.

West Bengal presents a different picture from the established Indian democratic exceptionalism. There are cyclical elections and constitutionally mandated governments in the state. But the veneer of democracy is not its substance. The recent killings of BJP-RSS workers, loot and plunder of homes and shops and even alleged attacks on women give a picture of the horrendous state of affairs. They show how democracy dies through elected leaders. Three years ago, the Supreme Court raised alarm bells when more than 20,000 out of around 58,000 candidates in the panchayat elections in West Bengal were elected “unopposed”. What does all this mean for Indian democracy?

The emergence of the RSS-BJP is unacceptable to a small but powerful section of the intelligentsia both inside and outside the country. They show a reluctance to even dialogue about their definitions of nationalism and secularism. They are the common source for the thoughts of most non-BJP parties. These common ideological roots constitute the pseudo-secular parivar, which increasingly ignites debates to delegitimise the “other”, the Sangh Parivar. This has deterred the process of the ideological synthesis that was the legacy of our freedom movement. It also hampers impartial debates over Nehru and Modi’s concepts of Bharat Mata. The self-styled progressive and liberal elites support caste and communal alliances — all in the name of democracy and secularism. And their binary-based indoctrination does not allow them to accept new realities. Their silence on the recent violence in West Bengal is telling. While there have been undiminished fascistic attacks on RSS-BJP workers, they continue to accuse Modi and Mohan Bhagwat of being fascist!

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Contemporary politics in West Bengal negates the state’s progressive legacy. In the early 20th century, Bengal witnessed symbiotic relations between art, literature, social reforms and politics. This was one of the reasons that compelled the colonial rulers to annul the partition of Bengal based on communal considerations in just six years, in 1911. But Bengali fraternity was destroyed by the communal virus. The same Bengal suffered Direct Action Day and communal madness in 1946. It seems that we have not learnt any lessons from the dark pages of history. The politics of Bengal today reflects this.

The Machiavellian politics of Marxists is also responsible for the culture of violence in the state, now being faithfully followed by its successors. In 1969, a 14-party coalition — United Front (UF) — led by Ajoy Mukherjee of the Bangla Congress, lost the majority due to internal dissensions. The cabinet fixed a date to test its strength on the floor of the House, which was not acceptable to the then Governor, P N Dharma Vira. Eventually, the government was dismissed. CPM leader Jyoti Basu, deputy CM in the UF government, revealed something in an interview to the project of oral history (Nehru Memorial Museum Library), which helps to understand what is happening in West Bengal today. Basu recalled a conversation with Dharma Vira, who quoted an intelligence report cautioning him the CPM would not “let the Assembly operate in a democratic way. That is you (Basu) would stop MLAs from coming except your own people and then you will declare your majority.” Basu confirmed its truthfulness. When Mukherji resigned, the CPM called a general strike.

Mamata Banerjee battled with Marxist hegemonic politics and earned fame for her bravery. But she has increasingly undermined democratic values. She knows the strength of the symbiotic relationship between culture and politics, which is a route for the expansion of the BJP. Her politics does not allow the “other” to express, expand and emerge. Therefore, the politics in the state — once known for its rich intellectual legacy — rejects a battle of ideas and prefers a battle of swords.


History is replete with instances that show that politically, Bengal responds slowly but decisively. Hindutva’s march in state politics is not about numbers. Banerjee is not afraid of the BJP’s 70-plus MLAs but of inconvenient questions she is not in a position to answer. The truth of the moment is the weakening of institutional buffers, of both democracy and federalism.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 13, 2021 under the title ‘The post-poll challenge’. The writer is a BJP Rajya Sabha MP

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First published on: 13-05-2021 at 03:09:26 am
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