Although Bengal has so far produced no nationally known ‘Dabang’ politicians, political violence is not alien to the state. Among the many stereotypes of Bengalis, one is of being peace-loving. The other being the Bengalis are an intellectual race. Literacy should not be confused with education. Be that as it may, another communist-ruled South Indian state has proven that college qualification is no guarantee to avoid savage political culture. Thus, the political history of Bengal is not strewn with roses.
Previously, people used to joke that Subhas Chandra Bose was the only testosterone hero of Bengalis. This quirky image of the Bengalis was created by the Kolkata”bhadroloksand the dhoti-clad politicians of previous generations. But like the demographics of the state, the profile of Bengali political leaders, even those from the city, has changed beyond recognition. In the first United Front government of the 1960s, the inclusion of Ram Chatterjee, a columnist from Serampore, north of Calcutta, raised eyebrows. In today’s political firmament, Ram would have felt at home and would likely have been seen as a statesman.
Over the years, regime change in West Bengal has been achieved neither by the pen nor by the point of a bayonet. Traditionally, the transition has been the child of the lumpenproletariat, aka the morons. The Indira Congress overthrew the second United Front government with the help of militant student leaders like Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, Subrata Mukherjee and others. Many of them, once past their prime, joined the Trinamool Congress. The Marxist-led Left Front stormed into the Writers’ Building riding the post-emergency wave, but kept control with the help of its formidable army of party cadres. Images of Mamata Banerjee’s street battles against the CPI-M “harmads” are still fresh in people’s minds.
Since the assembly elections in April 2021, Bengal has seen a new wave of bloodshed. While the BJP called it revenge violence by Trinamool workers, workers blamed it on factional infighting within the BJP nursing the wounds of a humiliating defeat. But the scale and geographic distribution of the incidents were important for justice to take notice. The governor, who has engaged in a war of attrition with the chief minister, has frequently sounded the alarm over the rule of law and order, which has been swept away by state administration as an attempt to precipitate a constitutional crisis. The Center maintained a studied silence, and routine investigations by the Department of the Interior were met with accusations of violating the federal structure.
The just-concluded local elections, in which Trinamool won a record statewide victory, were also mired in controversy. On this occasion more than the BJP, the CPI-M, which is trying to revive its fortunes in the state, complained of electoral terrorism. Critics said the new incumbents had simply followed the playbook of the left developed over three decades. Regional and national media focused their attention on Assembly elections in other states.
But the Rampurhat massacre is too gruesome for even the pro-establishment media to ignore. Predictably, there are conflicting versions of the nature, cause, and scale of the incident. However, the element of shock has been underestimated as West Bengal has seen similar incidents in the past. But what is different this time is the reaction of Congress and the CPI-M who spoke out to condemn the episode. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Speaker of the West Bengal Congress and leader of the Lok Sabha party, has declared his intention to meet the President of India and demand the rule of the President in the state. Nothing can come out of these fulminations. The Center will be circumspect about its interventions, weighing the political implications of any action. Soon it will be relegated to a footnote in the annals of state political history.
Make no mistake, Rampurhat is not a Nandigram and would have no immediate impact on the fortunes of the current dispensation. Yet it may signal a shift in political currents in the region that may swell over time. At this point, West Bengal has no significant opposition party. The BJP suffered a total collapse after the elections. Congress suffered near decimation as in many other states. The CPI-M is still trying to pick up the pieces of the rubble of the 2011 polls in the Assembly.
Recent elections in Uttar Pradesh have shown that voters are willing to prioritize law and order. But, absent a 2024 challenger, Lok Sabha is still a done deal for Trinamool in West Bengal. On the other hand, it could have implications for Mamata Banerjee’s ambitions domestically, as the BJP is likely to try to make political capital out of Bengal to tarnish his image.
But in Bengal the problem is independent of the party. Any party aspiring to power will have to ride on the shoulders of the same set of characters, as BJP has learned at enormous cost. Culture can only deteriorate over time unless there is a fundamental change in the political system. This can only come if people raise the bar and become more demanding of politicians. If they continue to live in the past reconciled with the status quo as the rest of India moves on, the situation can only go south.
While young people are already deserting the state in search of better opportunities elsewhere, aging”bhadraloks” will continue to lament the decline all around until they fade into oblivion. In the absence of economic opportunity, the less fortunate will party to live an endemic-perpetuating existence.
This article was first published on Firstpost.
The author is a news commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach, who tweets at @SandipGhose. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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