On December 19, the election day of Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) the city of Kolkata saw incidents of violence with the Opposition parties alleging rigging by the ruling TMC activists. The entire day saw candidates and activists accusing TMC for forcibly not allowing polling agents of Opposition parties in several wards. Not only this, there were also scenes of protests by CPM, BJP and Congress activists in different parts of the city, and in some places they even protested jointly. But TMC supremo and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee discounted the allegations of malpractices as mere “drama” and claimed the voting being “peaceful.”
Let’s now take a look at what happened on November 25, during the civic body elections in the tiny north eastern State of Tripura. The TMC levelled allegations there, similar as accused by CPM, BJP and Congress in the KMC election. Should the allegations of TMC now be seen as baseless in Tripura? Certainly not. The civic elections in Agartala and in many other urban areas were definitely not peaceful with reports of rigging and forcible stopping of polling agents of CPM and TMC by BJP activists. Just like Mamata and other TMC leaders, the State BJP leaders, including Chief Minister Biplab Deb, had then claimed elections were “peaceful” and the Opposition was doing ‘drama’.
The events that took place in KMC elections and Tripura civic polls were very similar. The unfortunate reality is that such incidents of political violence are indirectly normalised by both TMC and BJP in West Bengal and Tripura respectively. BJP leaders talk about West Bengal when asked about Tripura, while TMC leaders prefer to talk about Tripura instead of their State! Worse, TMC leaders choose to say that KMC elections were less violent than the previous elections and the civic polls of Tripura. While this can endlessly be debated by either side, it can be said that while political violence under ruling-BJP in Tripura is a reality, the history and situation is worse in West Bengal.
How can one forget what happened on polling day of the 2015 Kolkata Municipal Corporation and of other urban bodies? Scenes of widespread violence rocked the State while TMC tried to portray everything was hunky dory and the rest was a conspiracy hatched by the Opposition! Or how can one ignore the brutal scenes of violence during panchayat elections of 2018 that not only rocked the entire West Bengal but even reached the doors of the Supreme Court? In that election, deaths of Opposition workers and supporters belonging to BJP, CPM, Congress were reported. Or the widespread post-poll violence resulting in killings of supporters belonging to BJP, CPM, cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF) etc, this year after the return of TMC to power for the third consecutive term?
Add to this, there were allegations of rapes/gangrapes of women, who didn’t vote for TMC during the 2021 Bengal Assembly elections. The alleged rape/gang rape survivors of political violence even knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court for justice. The Calcutta High Court not only came down heavily on Mamata Banerjee government but ordered a CBI inquiry, which is still going on.
To be fair and is a given that people generally prefer the ruling party in local body polls whether in West Bengal, Tripura or in any other State and there is little doubt that the TMC would of course win the KMC polls or that the BJP would have an edge in the civic body polls in Tripura. However, what is critical is that in a democracy, there is no place for political violence whether it is before polls, on the day of polling or after the polls. Every political party has the right to contest and every voter has the right to choose the party of his/her choice. This, sadly is not being respected in India, boasting of being the world’s largest democracy.
At the same time, it is true that political violence is not a new phenomenon. West Bengal and Tripura had seen long rules of CPM-led Left Front and largescale incidents of political violence then. How can one forget Kerala, another State where political violence has become a big issue? The power reins in this southern State have oscillated between ruling CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the past 40-50 years.
Often the assumption by a section is that political violence in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura is a legacy of the Left, particularly of CPM. However, this isn’t quite true as there are acts of political violence in other parts of the country reflected in the reports compiled by NCRB: these include Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka which have performed worse, and others such as Jharkhand and Maharashtra faring badly! Political violence in Kerala was even under Congress-led UDF rule and there was a time when widespread rigging and violence were common in Bihar during elections. Or for that matter, let’s not forget the history of alleged political violence by Shiv Sena with the tacit support of then ruling party Congress–both in the State and Centre — to wipe out Communists in Mumbai and neighbouring areas?
Today, the Left, particularly CPM, cannot ignore the fact that there were incidents of political violence during their era in West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala, and continue in the southern State as it sits in power. But many commentators often ignore that political violence in West Bengal is said to be institutionalised by the Congress, particularly during the regime of Siddhartha Shankar Ray, in the name of suppressing the Naxal movement. While that was a pretext, the trend of violence per se continues unabated under the TMC.
Recall the dark period of the 1970s, when Congress ruled both in the State and the Centre, and elections were rigged in West Bengal and attacks on the Opposition, particularly CPM, were viewed as normal. Tripura too witnessed a similar dark period during 1988-1993, when Congress along with Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti ruled the State. Though a significant point often ignored is that during Manik Sarkar’s era, the violence lessened and elections by and large were more peaceful.
The crucial point is when it comes to political violence almost all parties stand guilty. Political activists often indulge in such acts because they believe they would get away with murder thanks to the blessings of the political leadership. Instead of accusing each other, it is high time leadership of all parties take note of the unfortunate, unhealthy and anti-democratic events they indulge in. Strict action needs to be initiated against the perpetrators rather than mere issuing of statements of condemnation, crying hoarse or passing the buck. In the end, it’s the country which becomes a victim, wherein in an era of polarisation it’s witnessing normalisation of political violence!