Calcutta Notebook


Another West Bengal election has come and gone. But a tragedy is repeating itself not as a farce but as a tragedy encore. This weekly, as is usual from its ivory tower perch, has ignored the hustings but in its wisdom it has chosen to print an article questioning the intention of Mathew Samuels of Narada sting. So while the baby continues to cry for attention, the bathwater is being analysed for putridity. An instance of misplaced priorities.

The situation on the ground is far from smooth and gentle. A 88,752 km² state with a population of 90 million is being sent to the elections in six phases under the guard of 200 CRPF companies (one company = 135 men). The Election Commission has restricted the deployment of the tainted state police to duties outside polling stations.

And yet, there is an election that has become a huge spectacle of violence that is being beamed all over the country by multifarious electronic media channels. It is a one sided violence perpetrated by ruling party workers on peaceful citizens who have unyielding desire to cast their votes. On the day of the fourth phase of the polls, a CPI(M) supporter was brutally hacked and then shot to death outside a polling booth in Domkal (district Murshidabad). The police FIR has named a TMC worker as an accused for the assault. In Ketugram (district Bardhaman) a voter's ear was cut off for having cast his vote for the CPI(M). In Kalyani (district Nadia), a professor was attacked with bamboo sticks and his arms broken because he had dared to go to the polling centre to cast his vote. The instances are too many to ignore and despite a promise by Election Commission of area domination by central forces one sees a domination of many neighbourhoods by local thugs.

The day after the third phase was no better. In Lodhna (district Bardhaman), two CPI(M) workers failed to survive a murderous attack on them with bombs, firearms and sharp weapons by TMC workers. A Congress worker was attacked with iron rods by bike borne hoodlums in Shyampukur, Kolkata. The attackers promised to repeat the performance if their candidate lost in that constituency.

Phase 4 (25 April 2016) of the polling was relatively quiet. Bidhannagar (North 24 Parganas), an enclave of pensioners and noveau riche was the cynosure of many eyes. A constituency where 20 reporters and camera persons had been severely manhandled by TMC men during the October 2015 civic polls was left to vote in peace sans violent intervention by 'outsiders'. However, in Bijpur (North 24 Parganas), a three and half year old child was criminally assaulted by goons because her mother's family arc known Left sympathisers. Later the courageous mother went to the polling station along with her little daughter, under the escort of security forces. Tanmay Bhattacharya, CPI(M) candidate for North Dum Dum (North 24 Parganas), suffered a bleeding right hand when a brickbat smashed the windscreen of his vehicle to smithereens. Television channels throughout the day showed him describing the incident with his right hand held high like a red badge of courage . Although elections related violence has not yet ebbed, a word of praise must be put in for the Election Commission's forces who have hit back hard at the hooligans without firing a single shot.

If the chattering classes are to be believed then the TMC supremo is apprehensive that the Left Front and Congress alliance will put up a good show and so the workers of her party have gone berserk. The alliance has also started believing in this trend. The Left front was tentative about the alliance and, they went to the polls without a designated candidate for the post of chief minister. To save the situation and to steal Pradesh Congress President Adhir Chowdhury's thunder, the much maligned former chief minister was brought in to the poll campaign just ahead of the third phase of the elections. He, bedecked with a Congress tricolour scarf, addressed a meeting with Rahul Gandhi of the Congress on 27 April.

The founding editor of the weekly wrote (in an article written in Bangla) on the March 1977 Lok Sabha elections that "Winning elections by hook or crook has become a practice in West Bengal, like cheating in examinations.... In the 1972 elections the use of strong arm methods was, perhaps, more widely prevalent." Since then the practice of using strong arm methods on the day of the elections has been a standing operating procedure. Politicians and party workers refer to this as 'vote korano' or getting the vote done. Notable exceptions have been the 'wave' elections like 1977 Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls, the 1984 Lok Sabha elections after the assassination of Indira Gandhi or the one in 2009 where TMC decisively trounced the Left Front after the Singur-Nadigram. Political violence, both before and after elections and in the interim between elections have been a distinctive feature of West Bengal politics. To cite an instance, on the day of a hartal (17 March 1970) called as a protest to Ajoy Mukherjee's resignation from the Chief Ministership of the second United Front ministry there were no less than 24 political murders.

Post-independence politics in West Bengal have driven people and trapped them in a cleft where the rising aspirations of the rest of the country have bypassed the people of this state. Even politicians have modest demands or why would so many of them be lured to being photo framed for Rs 5 lac or thereabouts. The Chief Minister of Telengana recently spent Rs 7 crore on a yagna at his farm house and the house still stands whereas the CPI(M) leader Anuj Pandey's two storey house was pulled down in 2009 by people led by the PCAPA (People's Committee Against Police Atrocities) simply because it was incongruent with the misery all over Lalgarh. West Bengal is one of the most densely populated states and at 1029 people per Km² it is next only to Bihar. De-industrialisation and lack of non- agricultural employment opportunities in rural areas has led to a lumpenisation of a section of the population. To make a living, people move out of the state or depend on Government's spendings that are routed through political linkages and this is where the citizens get entwined into a political system that perpetuates a status quo or brings in a change that is not much different. Violence erupts between those that have a right of way to political disbursements & privileges and those that do not. Strong arm methods associated with land grab that goes on behind the facade of the construction industry draws in the lumpenised section of the population. Land grab and fighting elections with help from toughs are the same side of the same coin.

Even the BJP, with the weight of Amit Shah and the thunder of Narendra Modi, have been befuddled by the politics of Bengal. They have sleepwalked through the campaign and their election meetings have been one way soliloquies that have not connected with the people at large. Caution has been their second self since they did not dare pull out the communal card, a ploy that they have employed in many states and very recently in Assam, a state that went to polls with West Bengal.

However, come 19 May, no big change is staring in the face of the citizens of this state.

Vol. 48, No. 45, May 15 - 21, 2016