“People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election,” said Bismarck. But the German statesman would have been surprised to see his casual comment being echoed in the state of West Bengal ahead of a crucial Panchayat poll in 2018.
The hunt, war, and election are no more distinct activities in the eastern state but appear to have become inseparable in the election season. The election is no less than a war, hunting down the opposition is part of that war, and lies of different degrees and colour are the only truth during the campaign.
Leaders of the ruling party, Trinamool Congress, have been unambiguous in spelling out the mission of making Panchayats (rural local bodies) ‘Opposition-mukt’, much like the BJP’s vow of making India ‘Congress-mukt’.
People showing any sign of opposition to Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), popularly called TMC, in the villages are being told in no uncertain terms against identifying themselves as candidates from Opposition parties. And those who still believe it is their democratic right to contest in the election and attempt to file their nomination papers, are fast learning some lessons.
There is an old adage in Bengali which says, “Maar na khele siksha hoyna”—(students do not learn without a beating by the teacher). Since political lessons are different from lessons imparted in school, classroom tools have given way in these elections to a burgeoning cottage industry of bomb-binding.
This goes against the spirit of electoral democracy, some might argue. What is the use of a democratic exercise if aspiring candidates are physically prevented from filing their papers? If establishing the ruling party’s hegemony is the goal then why hold elections at all? Even more puzzling is the question why Trinamool Congress finds it necessary to unleash violence, because nobody disputes that it is far ahead of its political rivals. It enjoys a great degree of popularity in the rural areas and nobody disputes that even in a fair poll, it would win the highest number of seats in village panchayats.
Mamata Banerjee surely has not forgotten that a disgusted populace had thrown out the Left Front precisely because of similar high-handedness, violence and attempts to perpetuate the control and hegemony of the ‘party’ by all means, fair and foul.
Indeed, immediately after coming to power the TMC took to vandalism, forced the CPI(M) and other opposition parties to shut down their offices and drove their supporters out of villages. It is equally true that the opposition failed to gather people’s sympathy and support and gradually lost their vote bank largely due to TMC’s skilful design and efficient implementation of populist programs.
Mamata Banerjee surely has not forgotten that a disgusted populace had thrown out the Left Front precisely because of similar high-handedness, violence and attempts to perpetuate the control and hegemony of the ‘party’ by all means, fair and foul
For example, food has historically been a major political issue in West Bengal. The two major food movements of 1959 and 1966 played crucial roles in bringing the Left to power. And yet, the Left Front government’s failure to address the issue of persistent hunger among certain sections of the population put it back at centre-stage.
Media reports in 2004 on hunger deaths in Amlasole, a village in present Jhargram district, heightened discontent; news of hunger deaths had started pouring in from the tea gardens of North Bengal. Although the Left Front government took some corrective measures like supplying rice at ₹2 in the tea garden areas they were seen as too little and too late. Inefficient implementation added to the popular discontent.
One of the major bottlenecks—widespread corruption by suppliers and in the system—was always present; but three successive and strong anti-government movements in Singur, Nandigram, and Lalgarh, helped focus attention on the failure of the Left Front Government and triggered the ration riot of 2008.
The Trinamool government after coming to power launched universal distribution of foodgrains at ₹2 in certain areas like Jangal Mahal—which had witnessed a bloody battle between the state and the Maoists. It paid off in the Panchayat Election of 2013, and the government used this experience to design the implementation of the National Food Security Act to cover about three-fourth of the population under the programme.
Besides allocating substantial state budget for the program—central budget was inadequate for doing this—it took up some major operational reforms that made the program more customer-friendly and relatively corruption-free.
In the second and third week of March this year, I visited some villages of Alipurduar in the north and Purulia in the south. I found to my pleasant surprise that even the traditionally excluded households—Adivasi, poor, illiterate, and politically voiceless—have been getting the grains stipulated under the programme.
How empowering this intervention has been became evident in what people declared. It can be summed up in the words of one of the poorest adivasis, Kheria Sabar.
He said, “We are still poor, and survive partly by working as agricultural labour and partly by picking forest produce. But the difference [between earlier times under the Left Front and now] is that, previously we had to work the whole day under the scorching sun, or in torrential rain. “
“Now, since the food we get from the ration shop gives us food to last us ten days or so, we can afford to take some rest…earlier we ate only once a day; we went out to work after having a pot of tea with salt added to it, we had no money to buy sugar. We then worked the whole day and ate a full meal only in the evening. Now we can afford to eat twice. And so, we can work better.”
I heard similar stories in Alipurduar villages. Foodgrains supplied to families at subsidised rates—in different quantities for different categories of households—has positively influenced lives and livelihood.
Why then is the TMC resorting to violence despite enjoying widespread support? One possible reason could be the complete absence of any democratic culture in the party.
Everything is decided by a single person, Mamata Banerjee. All credits go to a super-woman, Mamata Banerjee. Beginning a speech by any leader of the ruling party without invoking her name is sacrilege. Even a small bus stop constructed with local area development funds at the disposal of MPs and MLAs would invariably have the inscription, “inspired by the honorable Chief Minister, Mamata Bandyopadhyay.”
Politics based on authoritarianism and sycophancy has invariably led to monumental corruption, distrust and intolerance to any kind of opposition. That explains at least partly the paradox of high confidence and intense insecurity playing out at the same time in Bengal.
The author, a researcher, writer and commentator, works with Pratichi Trust, set up by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen