The speed with which Mamata Banerjee reacted to the information that a 40-man CBI team had descended on Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar’s residence at sundown on Sunday, has surprised many, especially those who know her the least.
Even more impressive was that within the next two hours the West Bengal chief minister had personally rushed to the spot, held a hurried strategy session, issued precise instructions to top officials and party leaders, announced her decision to stage an all-night sit-in, chosen the venue for the dharna and even finalized design details for the makeshift stage, shamiana and “Save Democracy” signboards.
To cap it all, she was able to instantly attract the spontaneous support of almost the entire spectrum of Opposition parties for her fight against Narendra Modi.
It might have looked like an impulsive action-plan conjured up on the spur of the moment. But it wasn’t entirely spontaneous. Mamata Banerjee would not be what she is – Chief Minister of India’s fifth most populous State -had she been merely mercurial.
She had seen the impending crackdown against her government coming weeks in advance and had prepared a political counter-strategy to what she knew would be a regime change operation camouflaged in legal, investigative and institutional clothing.
Indeed, only the politically naïve could have failed to see it coming. Having lost much electoral ground in central and northern parts of the country, the BJP was hell-bent on making inroads into the East by fair means or foul.
The sheer scale of the saffron invasion in recent days was there for all to see. Riding on shock-and-awe tactics fuelled by an enormous deployment of money-power and muscle-power, the ‘Mamata-mukt Bengal’ onslaught was injected with religious overtones, spiced with a few broken bones and split blood and raised to a crescendo with the shrill rhetoric of Amit Shah, Adityanath and Narendra Modi in person.
The signs could not have been clearer. The rug was about to be pulled from under her feet. A few incidents of violence would be sufficient for the Governor to invoke Article 356 and for the President to sign on the dotted line. When the blow would fall was not certain, but was no great riddle either – it would be well before the election schedule was formally announced.
Knowing what she knew, therefore, and being the street fighter that she is, Mamata Banerjee has chosen to do what comes naturally to her – launch a novel version of a civil disobedience movement.
For a party that has been in power for eight years, this may seem strange and paradoxical. But it isn’t really, considering that her battle will be against the all-powerful central government, the institutions it has suborned, blatantly partisan media organisations and even, potentially, the judiciary in the event that the courts choose to remain aloof from socio-political influences and perceptions.
Taking to the dharna route is no doubt a political gamble. But as a battle-scarred veteran, the Trinamool party supremo is well-versed in both the theory and practice of agitational politics. As some who have known her since her Youth Congress days will testify, she has an instinctive understanding of the rationale and ground rules of civil disobedience:
First and foremost, civil protests must remain peaceful and free of retaliatory violence, whatever the provocation. This is the golden principle laid down by Gandhi and Mandela. This is why, in her first address to her followers, she repeatedly stressed the point – there should be no physical violence, no destruction of public property.
Many books have been written by learned political scientists to underline a basic truth - once democracies begin the slide into authoritarianism, institutions cannot save them.
Hence, the only protection against total failure is the capacity of civil society to effectively mobilise collective action. The ability to protect the State depends on whether a diverse coalition of progressive groups can be mobilised.
The goals cannot be achieved alone by one single group. Attracting support from diverse groups and forming a coalition sends out the signal that the resistance is legitimate and sustainable. That signal has to go to many sections of society.
The first audience is other would-be protesters, who may be more willing to join in as they see prospects of the movement growing and winning key gains. The second audience is the silent majority, who may begin to see the protests and demonstrations as reason to interpret the authoritarian administration’s actions with more skepticism.
The third crucially important audience is the people who are part of the administration – bureaucrats at the Centre, policemen in other States including para-military forces, and even ruling party rank and file members. They must be gradually convinced, won over and motivated to silently resist internally.
Another key audience is the outside world. Foreign media and governments will take note of political resistance if it is peaceful, well-organised and representative of diverse groups.
Studies of authoritarian behaviour reveal certain patterns. Throughout history, dictators tend to exhibit similar traits - depicting any dissent as unpatriotic, filing sedition cases against slogan-chanting youth on college campuses, making scapegoats of the most vulnerable, mocking and threatening political opponents often using vulgar colloquialisms and expressions of personal ridicule.
There is also what is considered a typical authoritarian playbook when it comes to weakening civil society. It is basically a divide-and-rule strategy.
First, there are attempts to enforce loyalty through threats and bribes. Then, open efforts to suppress or undermine free speech – by using direct violence against dissenters, buying over defectors, planting moles in opposition parties, escalating surveillance, passing laws to criminalize hitherto common customs, and periodically subjecting the people to heavy financial or legal burdens to break the spirit of the ordinary citizen.
Another typical trait of autocrats is to blame neighbouring countries for domestic problems, calling opponents as terrorists, traitors or would-be assassins, censoring information and distorting public statistics, co-opting or bullying the independent media into total submission.
To fight against such draconian behaviour is a Herculean task. It cannot be done through violence, which will only be crushed with greater violence. Peaceful civil resistance is the only answer.
Actions like strikes, human barricades, award returns and candlelight processions can have a powerful impact, although they run the risk of harsh crackdowns. Political party rallies, dharnas and marches could be less risky provided they have the safety of large numbers of participants.
The key elements for successful civil-resistance campaigns – which Mamata Banerjee and all the regional party and national leaders who seek to make a mark in the coming Lok Sabha elections include the following - constant increase in the number and diversity of protesters, constant efforts to bring about loyalty shifts among the elite supporters of the regime, constantly adopting innovative new methods of defiance and the ability to remain united, disciplined and resilient, even in the face of repression and disinformation.
In a pre-election scenario, this will generate a public perception that will be reflected in the election results. Even before that, one sure sign of success is when bureaucrats and security forces start refusing to obey orders and decide to join the fight to Save Democracy.