Mamata’s change from free poll democracy to poll-free fiefdom

Vocal about CPI(M)’s strong arm tactics before 2011, Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee has done a complete U-turn since, browbeating opponents, threatening and often thrashing them into submission

Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Biswajit Roy

The Mamata Banerjee-led All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) had already won the three-tier panchayat polls in West Bengal hands down, much before the opposition could even file nominations for a large number of seats for the election which is scheduled in May. At the top tier, the ruling TMC pitted 1,066 nominees for a total of 825 seats in the Zila Parishads, while BJP could file only for 766 seats. The Left Front and the Congress came next, filing nominations for 665 and 377 seats respectively. The same pattern follows in the other two tiers, Panchayat Samitis and Gram Panchayats. Bengal’s big sister, or Didi as she is called, has performed magic, not by satisfying rural electorates and keeping the opposition’s doubting Thomases mum over her development report card. Instead, the Chief Minister and AITC supremo has achieved her goal by unleashing her party hordes on the opposition.

Armed with lethal weapons and licensed to kill, masked and unmasked youth pounded political rivals in their homes, on the roads as well as inside administrative offices to stop them from filing nominations. They chased away Opposition candidates and their supporters with complete immunity from the police. The uniformed law-enforcers have not even bothered to play their role from behind the wings. At many places, the cops openly joined or flanked the motorbike-borne terror gangs or Mamata’s foot soldiers in the hot pursuit of the opposition men and women who had come to file nominations across districts.

Even senior Opposition leaders including former MPs were bloodied for daring to contest Didi’s hegemony. One of Mamata’s trusted lieutenants, Anubrata Mondal alias Kesto, the AITC boss in Birbhum district, bragged about his record in ensuring victory in 41 out of 42 seats in the Zila Parishad, and 14 out of 19 Panchayat Samitis without any polls. Infamous for intimidation, the strongman bluntly retorted when asked about the armed party men: “They are rural people who came to the town to sharpen their swords.”

The State Election Commission, which presides over the Panchayat polls, had extended the deadline for nomination till Tuesday afternoon following pleas from the Opposition. However, commission head Amarendra Kumar Singh rescinded his decision after a heavyweight TMC team and the top brass of state administration, obviously following orders from the top, put pressure on him. This is not the first time the Mamata administration has tried to browbeat the poll panel, which is nominally autonomous but lacks legal shields and powers like the Election Commission of India.

Between her demand for free polls in 2011 and her obsession with poll-free victory in 2018, Mamata’s metamorphosis only underlines the perils that Indian democracy faces, not only due to the Sangh Parivar’s practice of communal and majoritarian politics, but also from other forms of despotism

It is true that beating up political adversaries especially during the polls is not an exclusive preserve of only Bengal’s prima donna of street-smart politics. All ruling parties in Bengal have practised the skill since Independence in successive terms. The memories of sham elections under Congress strongman SS Roy during the blood-stained Naxalite movement in the early seventies and police-cadre joint hounding of the Left even before Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency, still haunt older generations. The CPI(M)-led Left Front, which cried foul against the mockery of democracy under the Congress regime, suffered from historical amnesia when they came to power. They chose to rerun the rule of party apparatchiks and loyal nomenclatura after the initial idealism. Participatory Panchayat system and devolution of power to the people was replaced by realpolitik drives of clientelism and control over social-political life in rural Bengal.

Mamata played agony aunt to those who were at the receiving end of the Marxists’ sticks. She emerged as the miniature Joan of Arc of Bengal’s liberation struggle against the prolonged Red rule and came to power in 2011, promising ‘Paribartan’ or change after Singur-Nandigram land agitations catalysed the Left’s downfall. But midway into her second term, she has decided to forego all democratic niceties. She lacks the finesse of the CPI(M) party apparatus, which had turned coercion and manufacturing of consent and obedience into an art form that enabled the party to rule without much bloodshed. Instead, she has resorted to the crudest form of intimidation and violence to enforce her party’s diktat.

In the wake of the BJP’s gradual rise as the main opposition in the state, Mamata has sent confusing signals to the Left and the Congress, her traditional Opposition. She has sometimes wished them to be a buffer between AITC and the BJP, but effectively denied the other secular forces any space for their survival. Her relentless poaching into Opposition legislative and panchayat teams by dangling both carrot and stick has not spared either Rahul Gandhi’s party or that of Sitaram Yechury. In fact, her instinct for total control of the political space, her public show of intolerance to any dissent or criticism and her unabashed promotion of personality cult built around her have become unmistakable since 2011. It has irked many secular opposition and independent civil society members to see megalomania being the common trait in Mamata and her friend-turned-foe Narendra Modi.

Others, however, found a method in her madness. The mover of the idea of a federal front at the Centre has offered a mantra for anti-BJP unity, which presupposes a veritable permanent settlement of the rights of regional players, effectively making respective states an unchallenged fiefdom for them. According to this formula, Bengal will be Didi’s zamindari while UP is to be left to Bua (Mayawati) and Babua (Akhilesh Yadav). Between her demand for free polls in 2011 and her obsession with poll-free victory in 2018, Mamata’s metamorphosis only underlines the perils that Indian democracy faces, not only due to the Sangh Parivar’s practice of communal and majoritarian politics, but also from other forms of despotism.

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