West Bengal is not new to political violence, but the scale and intensity of attacks in the run-up to the panchayat polls in the state and thereafter, are still remarkable. Though the elections got over last month, the violence has continued, with incidents including murders reported from across the state. A gruesome instance was reported from Purulia district, where a BJP activist was killed and hung from a tree, with a warning note stuck on his body. The BJP has reportedly asked its cadres in Purulia to set up a Gram Surakasha Vahini, a non-state vigilante force, to protect its supporters. Evidently, political groups, distrustful of the state machinery, are bracing to battle it out on their own. The signs are ominous — they point to a state slipping into lawlessness, with a regime unapologetic about suppressing any opposition to its total domination of the polity.
Since the 2011 assembly election, which saw the Trinamool Congress winning office after three decades of Left rule, the political ground in the state has shifted. The CPM and the Congress seem to be in near terminal decline, resulting in cadres and leaders exploring new pastures. Post-2014, the BJP has been fast expanding its base in the state — the party won over 5,400 gram panchayat seats in the just concluded local body elections, way ahead of the third-placed CPM, which got a little over 1,500 gram panchayat seats . The Trinamool Congress, which won over 20,000 gram panchayat seats, recognises the rise of a new opponent in the BJP, and it wants to nip the challenge in the bud. Like the CPM before it, the Trinamool is determined to dominate politics at the grassroots and deny any space to its Opposition. The violence unleashed by the ruling party ahead of the local bodies poll was meant to prevent the Opposition from even contesting the elections — Trinamool candidates won 34 per cent of the local bodies seats unopposed since the Opposition could not even file nominations. Local bodies are a rich source of funds and useful to dispense patronage; control of these allows a party to dominate political and administrative structures at all levels.
The authoritarian character of the Trinamool project, however, has not gone unnoticed outside West Bengal. The incessant violence in the state is unlikely to help the government’s endeavours to attract capital and industry, essential for the much-needed economic turnaround. It could also dent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s national ambitions, her efforts to build or lead a federal front against the NDA. As chief minister of a crucial state and as an important leader of the Opposition, Banerjee is under watch.