Bengal Election Voters

What we are witnessing in Bengal today reminds us of the saying: `It takes two to tango’, implying that in a dispute it is not one alone, but the other is also responsible. During the electoral campaign in the state, the Trinamul Congress (TMC) chief minister Mamata Banerjee coined the slogan: ‘Khela Hobey’ (It will be a game). Her rival the BJP immediately accepted the challenge, repeating the slogan on a higher pitch and joined the game to play the tango. After the defeat of the BJP, in the post-poll scenario, the second round of the game has begun. As before, both the BJP (now trounced) and the TMC (now triumphant) are feeding on each other. What are the respective tactics that each is adopting to dance the tango in the latest game ?

To start with the BJP, its leaders and followers have never been known for accepting electoral defeat with grace. They have tried instead to overturn it by buying off unscrupulous legislators from Opposition parties in states and form governments of their own choice there (e.g. Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka). That game of theirs cannot work in Bengal now, since with only 77 seats in the state legislature, they cannot hope to persuade anyone from among the 213 TMC (Trinamul Congress) legislators to defect to their party, even with all their tentacles of money and muscle power. The BJP therefore has to look for other means of avenging its defeat.

Imposition of Central diktats

From its position of power in Delhi, the BJP is manipulating the central agencies to punish the TMC government. One such agency is the CBI – which was denigrated as a `caged parrot’ by the Supreme Court in a judgment in May, 2013, implying its subservience to the then ruling party. It has now become a falcon, trained by the falconer who heads the Union Home Ministry in the present BJP government. Soon after the TMC government to power, the CBI has swooped down upon it. On May 17, it arrested four Trinamul politicians – two recently sworn in ministers , Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim; a former mayor of Kolkata, Sovan Chatterjee; and a veteran party leader Madan Mitra. They are all accused in what is known as the Narada sting operation case.

The case pertains to an incident in 2014, when a journalist Mathew Samuel, founder of Narada TV news channel, on behalf of the news magazine Tehelka (of which he was the managing editor then) , carried out a sting operation by interviewing some TMC ministers and politicians in Bengal. He shot videos which showed them accepting cash from him in exchange of favours that they promised Samuel, who pretended to be a representative of a company interested in investing in Bengal – a fictitious company. Among those TMC politicians and ministers shown on the video tapes were the faces of Subrata Mukherjee, Firhad Hakim, Madan Mitra , Sovan Chatterjee – and also two others, Mukul Roy and Subhendu Adhikari.

In March 2017, the Kolkata High Court directed the CBI to probe into the Narada sting operation. Curiously enough the agency remained silent for the last four years on the issue of following up its investigation with the prosecution of the accused. The CBI seems to have suddenly woken up to its responsibility only after the present electoral defeat of the BJP by the TMC in Bengal. This has quite understandably raised the suspicion that the Modi government is using the CBI to revive an old case to intimidate the TMC. The suspicion is further reinforced by the fact that the CBI has been selective in its arrests – choosing to leave out two of the main accused seen on the video tapes. They are Mukul Roy and Subhendu Adhikari, who were leaders of the TMC when the video was shot, but left the party when threatened by the CBI inquiry, and joined the BJP to seek protection. Today they occupy important positions in the BJP, Subhendu Adhikari being the leader of the Opposition in the post-electoral Bengal legislature. Is it because of their new found positions of privilege and the powers which they enjoy under the BJP regime that the CBI does not dare to arrest these two ?

The role of the Governor of Bengal

Apart from the CBI as a tool in this plot to avenge his defeat in Bengal, Modi has a loyal ally in Bengal – the state’s Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar. He is a former BJP MP who was appointed governor in Bengal by Narendra Modi (as a reward for his services to the party) in 2019 . Since then, he has been continuing to demonstrate his gratitude to Modi by issuing inflammatory statements – both before the polls and after – accusing the ruling Trinamul party of violent acts (while ignoring similar acts by the goons of the BJP to which he belonged a few years ago).

In a partisan malicious move, Dhankhar on May 9, just a day before the swearing in of the new TMC ministry, gave sanction to the CBI when it sought permission to prosecute the three Trinamul Congress MLAs, Subrata Mukherjee, Firhad Hakim and Madan Mitra in the Narada sting case. According to constitutional norms, permission for prosecution of MLAs has to be sought from the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. But Dhankhar, in a cunning manner, took advantage of the interregnum between the expiry of the outgoing council of ministers and the swearing in of the new council which was yet to appoint a speaker – a sort of a brief limbo – where he could exert his powers as a Governor.

But Dhankhar did not stop at that. Soon after swearing in the Trinamul ministers on May 10, he held a press conference at his Raj Bhavan office in Kolkata and raised an alarm: “We are in a very deep crisis in the state. Post-poll retributive violence, acts of arson and loot have graded (sic.) to intimidation and extortion.” He then announced his plans to visit the “affected areas….to share the pain, agony and anguish of the suffering people.” Fair enough ! But his next words sounded an ominous note. Complaining about the state government’s “not very encouraging response” to his request for making “arrangements” for his visit , he warned that he would go ahead with his schedule, and “make arrangements for such visits in the coming days.” (Re: DECCAN CHRONICLE, May 11, 2021). In other words, Dhankhar was itching for a face-off with the Trinamul government .

Quite predictably Dhankhar’s tour of Coochbehar in north Bengal on May 13 led to a face-to-face confrontation between him and TMC supporters who encircled his car and shouted : “Go back !” They accused him of confining his visits only to the homes of the BJP followers who had been victims of post-poll violence, but ignored the TMC and other non-BJP families who had suffered equally from attacks by BJP activists during the same period.

Dhankhar found fresh grist to his mill of anti-Mamata vendetta when demonstrations of protest broke out in Kolkata and other parts of the state on May 17, following the arrests of the three TMC leaders. While chief minister Mamata Banerjee, in her usual theatrical mode, made her way into the CBI headquarters in Nizam Palace on the city’s main thoroughfare, to sit on a `dharna’, her followers gathered outside the building shouting anti – CBI slogans and hurling bricks on the CRPF personnel who were guarding it (thus attracting maximum media and public attention). Dhankar immediately resorted to his Twitter handle, and referring to the incidents, complained about “total lawlessness and anarchy” in the state, and warned the administration of the “repercussions of such lawlessness and failure of constitutional mechanism.” (THE TIMES OF INDIA, May 18, 2021). It is quite obvious that the “repercussions” that he was warning of, were to take the shape of President’s Rule on Bengal – an objective which the Modi government at the Centre has been relentlessly pursuing by raising the bogey of `failure of law and order.’

Encroachment on state’s autonomy

Apart from encouraging such unconstitutional gubernatorial intervention in the state’s autonomy from its position of power at the Centre, the BJP is further seeking the aid of the judiciary to legitimize its plans to overthrow the TMC government. One of its followers, a lawyer called Ghanashyam Upadhyay has submitted a petition to the Supreme Court, asking it to “direct” the Centre to advise President’s Rule in West Bengal on the ground of failure of the constitutional machinery. (THE HINDU, May 20, 2021).

More ominous is the latest move by the Union Home Minister Amit Shah. To depict Mamata Banerjee as a chief minister who is incapable of protecting his party MLAs, he has announced the deployment of commandos from CRPF and CISF to guard the 77 BJP legislators in Bengal. This is likely to lead to a confrontation between the central para- military forces and the state’s police force, since law and order is a state subject. Commenting on the move, a veteran police officer, Julio Ribeiro (now retired, who tackled the Khalistani terrorists in Punjab in 1986, and later became the Mumbai police commissioner), has sounded a warning. Accusing Shah of “spawning some very dangerous new doctrines in Centre-State relations,” that threatened “inter-personal relations and trust between state police personnel and central para-military personnel,” he pointed out that this would “forfeit the unspoken camaraderie and brotherhood between different police formations in the country…” (INDIAN EXPRESS, May 15, 2021).

Mamata Banerjee’s past record and next step

Having condemned the nefarious and unconstitutional plans of the BJP-ruled Centre, a dispassionate critic will also have to examine the behaviour of Mamata Banerjee in her dual role as the TMC boss and chief minister . While welcoming the defeat of BJP at her hands and understanding the popular euphoria around it, we need to sound a note of caution. For the present unsavoury wrangling between the Centre and the state government and the violence that marked the election campaign and continues to plague Bengal, the TMC also has to share the blame.

During the last ten years of her governance, Mamata Banerjee had earned notoriety for institutionalizing a system of corruption, kept well-oiled by money flowing through different channels. This was operated at the ground level by the TMC activists who extorted money from small businessmen, shopkeepers, traders and building contractors among others. Known by the term `tolabaji,’ this money was then transported to the upper echelons of the party where the top leaders took their share, and distributed the rest among the activists. This was known by the term `cut.’

During this same period, as a chief minister, Mamata displayed in her public behaviour extreme arrogance and intolerance of criticism. She systematically unleashed her party’s musclemen on political opponents to totally eliminate all Opposition parties. Houses and party offices of the CPI(M) and Congress were burnt down, and their activists were slaughtered. This reached its nadir during the 2018 panchayat polls in Bengal, when Opposition party candidates were prevented from filing nomination , their supporters were beaten up and voters were chased away from polling booths by the TMC goons, who thus ensured a total victory for their party.

One might ask why despite the prevalence of such corruption and tyranny, the TMC won the 2021 assembly elections. This has been made possible to a large extent by the welfare measures initiated by Mamata during her last tenure. She targeted young women from the poorer sections by offering them cycles and free education, and helped dalit and other disadvantaged people through the scheme called `Duare Sarkar’ (meaning the government at your door) which delivered benefits at home. Thanks to Mamata’s propaganda, these measures were projected as a one-woman show, and the beneficiaries identified the aid they received with Mamata. This helped to neutralize public discontent and anger at the TMC’s otherwise corrupt and violent practices.

At the end therefore, the tango between the TMC and the BJP is not a battle of good against evil. It is a fight between forces that are fighting for power. The common people of Bengal – in the absence of a Left and secular alternative force – have opted for the TMC as a lesser evil than the far more vicious evil that is the BJP.

They will watch with bated breath how Mamata plans her next step to fight the BJP. Having eliminated the traditional Opposition parties of Bengal – the Congress and the Left – she is now facing a new Opposition party. It was easier for her to crush the earlier two parties, since the Congress was already on the decline, and the CPI(M) had lost its popularity by its suicidal policy of forcibly acquiring farmers’ land in Nandigram and Singhur during its rule.

But facing the BJP will be a different ball game altogether. First, it is a rising power, and being the only Opposition party in the Assembly, it will claim to be the sole representative of all voices of grievances against the TMC government – real or imaginary. It will thus fill up the space of political protest that was earlier represented by secular parties like the Congress and the Left. Its activists will raise the bogey of Muslim infiltration from Bangladesh and whip up a frenzy of communal hatred against the Trinamul government through the social media and fake news. Secondly, the BJP is in a position to organize anti-government mass demonstrations thanks to the wide network of RSS `sakha’s spread out in interior villages of Bengal. There are at least thirty such branches which work at educational, cultural and religious levels, run Ekal shools and Vidya Bharati Schools, and organize Sri Hari Satsangs. Ironically, the RSS was able to silently and steadily expand this network behind the back of Mamata, who was too busy destroying the Congress and the Left to take note of this expansion of the RSS which has now emerged as her biggest enemy. Thirdly, the BJP in Bengal will draw strength from its central leadership which is in power in Delhi – a privilege which the Congress and the Left lacked and therefore could be easily subdued by Mamata. The Bengal BJP will always keep the TMC government on tenterhooks by keeping the sword of Damocles hanging on it – threatening President’s rule.

How to defeat BJP’s game plan ?

Given this portent of things to come, neither the Mamata Banerjee-led TMCs, nor the Bengali people who voted it back to power, should feel smug over its victory, and underestimate the Sangh Parivar’s capacity to wreak havoc in Bengal. They have to remember that the BJP has won 77 seats – a jump from three in the last assembly – and enjoys the loyalty of 38% of the Bengali voters. The Parivar has apparently built up a support base among more than one-third of the electorate. This poses a huge challenge not only to the TMC government, but also to the other political forces as well as civil society groups in Bengal that articulate the voices of secularism and religious tolerance.

Mamata Banerjee’s old style of governance – a combination of brutal intimidation of political opponents, malfeasance in commercial dealings, and softening of these rough edges by occasional announcements of sops and welfare measures, and populist demagogy – is not likely to work for long in the face of the threat from the BJP which has found a foothold in Bengal now. Her personal theatrical gimmicks , like sitting on `dharna’ at the CBI office in Kolkata in protest against the arrest of her ministers, may lead to violent confrontation with the BJP goons, backed by their MLAs, and provide the Centre with further excuse to intervene in the affairs of the state.

In order to curb BJP’s influence in Bengal, a more comprehensive and nuanced strategy is required. To start with, Mamata must shed her arrogance and rein in her corrupt lieutenants and lumpen cadres. She will have to be inclusive in her political approach by reaching out to all secular and democratic political parties and along with them make a concerted effort to resist the Hindu communal forces and push them back, and wean away the 38 % who are brainwashed by the RSS `sakha’s, and swayed by Modi’s jingoism. Is Mamata willing to take on this new role ?

Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth-Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016).


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