The spurt of poll-related violence in Kolkata might run contrary to Bengal’s cultured image. But “Bhadralok politicians” have regularly used force to deal with political dissent.
Politics and violence have always gone hand-in-hand in Bengal. The first two decades after independence that witnessed a steady stream of refugees from across the border, abject poverty and Delhi’s “indifference” might have set the stage for what was to follow.
In the 1970s, it was the Congress that spearheaded murderous attacks to silence and marginalize political opponents. The following three decades—the 1980s, 1990s and 2000 — the CPI (M)-led Left Front muzzled detractors through force. Since 2009, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress has been keeping this tradition alive.
The use of violence to counter violence has gained such perverse logic in Bengal’s political culture that whichever party controls the levers of power now opts for this as the most effective way to deal with political detractors.
The latent anti-Muslim feeling among sections of “Bhadralok” caste Hindus is being seen by many as a key reason for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise in the state. But the steady disappearance of the space for dissent is perhaps an equally strong reason for Mamata’s detractors gravitating towards Narendra Modi.
Much of this shift towards the BJP has interestingly come from former CPI (M) cadres and supporters. Their survival and physical well-being have come into question since most have become the target of Mamata’s TMC supporters. With the left drastically losing its base after losing power in the state in 2011, most find the BJP to be the only option to protect them.
The BJP’s victory in neighbouring Tripura in 2017 had led some to think that perhaps Mamata will take the lead in bringing about a coalition of anti-BJP forces in Bengal. After much debate, Congress and the left parties had started taking steps in that direction. But the TMC leadership had a different opinion.
Mamata felt that if she could marginalize all the anti-Modi forces in Bengal, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections she had a good chance of cornering most of the 42 parliamentary seats. If she achieved this, it would brighten her chance of becoming the most acceptable prime ministerial candidate if the election results did not produce a clear verdict in favour of any single party.
But the strategy with short-term gain might have forced the CPI(M) cadres to lock up their party offices and run for cover; it has now come back to haunt her. The BJP, earlier seen only as a distant second in the state, has now started looking like a viable and main opposition to Mamata.
Irrespective of how many of the 42 Lok Sabha seats the BJP finally manages to wrest from Mamata, the party has surely put the ruling TMC on notice. Unfortunately, this only means that people in the state will continue to witness long spells of violence between the political opponents in the coming days.