The Election Commission’s unprecedented decision to invoke its special powers under Article 324 of the Constitution to prematurely end the election campaign in West Bengal, 24 hours ahead of schedule, is an indictment of the state government. The EC’s move was apparently provoked by the violence that erupted on Tuesday, during BJP President Amit Shah’s roadshow in Kolkata. This had been preceded by a deeply polarising campaign. The past six rounds of voting in the state have seen violence and intimidation, especially by the cadres of the ruling Trinamool. The Opposition, not just the BJP but also the CPM and the Congress, have complained that the administration has not been fair in allowing a level-playing field. Now the state government must heed the EC, and rein in the unruly mobs.
An ugly spectacle played out on the Kolkata streets on Tuesday: BJP cadres and student activists of the Trinamool did not even spare the statue of the renaissance icon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Both are ruling parties — the BJP at the Centre and the Trinamool in Kolkata — and as parties in government, expected to behave more responsibly. Instead, the top leaders of both parties have sharpened the rhetoric during the campaign, making Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s claim to protect a liberal order and complaints by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah about polarisation and poll violence in Bengal ring hollow. The vandalised bust of Vidyasagar is a symbol of all that has gone wrong with politics in West Bengal. This 19th century social reformer worked to usher in a liberal social order that valued the dignity and rights of individuals over all forms of oppressive collective claims. Competitive politics in West Bengal in the past few decades has diminished the individual’s agency in civic life and subsumed the citizen under the rubric of the party; the party identity today overrides all other selves and cadres are willing to kill and die for it. The trend didn’t begin with the Trinamool, or the BJP. The Congress and the Left used violence to dominate the streets and win elections in the 1960s and thereafter. The Trinamool, which won office by promising poriborton, and the BJP, which wants to displace the Trinamool, too follow the same strategy as they pursue political dominance.
All leading players in West Bengal must pause and reflect on their contribution to the entrenching of a culture of political violence. But in the immediate term, the blame must necessarily be owned more by the Trinamool which rules the state. There is a serious threat that the violence may outlive the campaign season and carry on beyond May 23. The Mamata Banerjee government must act urgently to ward off that spectre.