Free & fair polls seem impossible in Bengal

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Free & fair polls seem impossible in Bengal

Sunday, 11 October 2020 | Swapan Dasgupta

The move away from one-party dominance that took place after the general election of 1967 has meant that nearly all political parties have experienced spells in the Opposition, both nationally and at the regional level.

Being the ruling party involves a distinct experience for its members. Apart from normal issues of governance that preoccupies Ministers and a few others, the membership is preoccupied with securing posts that ensures a share of the power the party has secured in Government. This ranges from getting on to the personal staff of Ministers and legislators, securing appointments to Government bodies which can embellish visiting cards and generally basking in reflected glory.

The Opposition experience is altogether different. A party in Opposition doesn’t have too much to dole out by way of patronage. There are, of course, the usual quota of appointments in the personal staff of the MPs and MLAs who managed to get elected. But these are few in number and usually taken up those who have been with a politician for long and acquired his/her trust and demonstrated loyalty. Most of the other active members rush to secure party posts of one description or another. I have often been struck by the sheer desperation of people to find a place — however meaningless — in the party’s organisational wing. More than anything else it adds to their self-esteem and makes them feel extremely relevant in their own localities. It makes the wait for the next election, when there is another shy at winning power, more bearable.

Opposition politics also involves an additional experience that may not be all that forthcoming when in Government: street politics. Mobilising people for demonstrations and dharnas against the ruling party is the bread and butter of Opposition politics. The belief is that unless an Opposition party is seen to be active on the steets, it will lose its relevance. The conviction may not hold good in an age of 24x7 television and social media. But it would be fair to say that this is conventional wisdom. Parties often act according to this belief.

A natural concomitant of street politics is frequent encounters with the local police at dharnas and demonstrations. Some of these encounters can be good humoured and experienced policemen know that the Opposition can be ‘managed’ through some accommodation, However, inescapably, no agreement is possible either because the demands are so outrageous or because the police are under instruction from the ‘top’ to come down hard on the Opposition. Ironically, even this serves a purpose. I know of party apparatchiks who insist that a member is unworthy of assuming responsibilities unless they have experienced lathi blows on the streets. In their world, cerebral politics has no relevance in a political party.

This narration of the political culture that prevails in Indian politics is useful to bear in mind when assessing the widespread disturbances in Kolkata on October 8. The State Yuva Morcha of the BJP had given a call for a mass march on Nabanna, the seat of the West Bengal Government, located just across the second Howrah bridge. Street politics has a long pedigree in Bengal, having been practised at different point by the Left, the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made her political mark through street agitations and even now she is most comfortable leading marches or encouraging her party members to fight the Opposition on the streets.

The BJP is a relative newcomer to this culture of street protests in Bengal, but in a very short span of time it has learnt the ropes. There is another reason why the State BJP feels the need to be visible on the streets. The local electronic and print media is so tightly in the grip of the ruling dispensation in Kolkata that to attract widespread attention to its challenge to Mamata Banerjee, it has to do things that are dramatic and spectacular. The march on the Government headquarters was precisely such an exercise.

However, to me, a more important question centres on the reaction of the State Government to this street politics. Last Thursday, Mamata Banerjee declared war. She shut the headquarters down, allegedly for fumigation purposes, and instructed the police that the demonstrators must be dealt with as harshly as possible. In simple language it meant that the police were under instructions to beat the BJP workers black and blue and break up every gathering.

The police followed these instructions faithfully, closed down important arterial roads and showed no tact or restraint in breaking up the four major gatherings in different parts of the city. The beatings were crude and there are video shots of a policeman mercilessly thrashing an elderly man as he tried to shield two children. There is disturbing footage of a Sikh security guard of a politician having his turban pulled off. And there are hospital shots of people with horrible bruises on their backs and legs.

As someone who witnessed a section of the protest march, I can say with certainty that the use of force was disproportionate and aimed almost entirely at teaching the BJP a lesson.

I fear the results will be quite the opposite. What the administration’s over-reaction has done is made the BJP raise the ante. There was little prospect that the Assembly election in summer 2021 would be a gentlemanly affair. The spate of political murders and the attacks on BJP leaders has ruled that out. After last Thursday, there is compelling evidence that Mamata Banerjee is over-dependent on the police and administration to exercise political control. This will trigger an appropriate BJP response in the coming days. But more important, she has signalled to her party faithful that their political battle with the BJP will have the full backing of the Government machinery. If this pattern persists, the prospects of a free and fair poll in 2021 will be seriously jeopardised.

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