West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly attacked the Bharatiya Janata Party for religious and political intolerance – even dashing off poems about this. As a consequence, it’s essential for her make sure her own record is unimpeachable. The spectacle in Bengal this week does not give any such assurance.
Soon after Sudip Bandyopadhyay, a member of Parliament from the Trinamool Congress, was arrested for his alleged involvement in the Rose Valley chit fund scam on Tuesday, Banerjee claimed that the country was in a state of “full-fledged emergency”. She claimed that ministers of her Trinamool Congress, including actor-turned-politician Tapas Pal, who was arrested last Friday, were being targeted because of her party’s opposition to demonetisation. She asserted that she also had a government whose power could be wielded against political opponents.
As if on cue, Trinamool Congress workers went on the rampage in Bengal. Reports of BJP leaders and offices being attacked began to pour in. On Tuesday evening, Trinamool Congress workers allegedly attacked the BJP headquarters in Kolkata, reportedly injuring several party workers. Later that night, Krishna Bhattacharya, vice president of the BJP’s Bengal unit, claimed that her house in Hooghly district had been attacked with bombs. On Wednesday, BJP MP Babul Supriyo claimed his parents’ house in Kolkata had been targeted. On the same day, a BJP office in Chinsurah was set alight by suspected Trinamool Congress workers.
Going by reports, the BJP is under siege in Bengal.
No state for dissent
During her time as chief minister, Banerjee has had a difficult relationship with dissent. Her tussles with the media, for one, are legend. In 2012, soon after winning elections for the first time, the chief minister decreed that public libraries may only stock newspapers deemed suitable by the government. Incidentally, the list provided by the freshly minted administration omitted dailies perceived to be critical of Banerjee.
In the run up to the 2016 assembly polls, the chief minister lashed out once again against Anandabazar Patrika, the largest media house in Bengal, clubbing it with her political adversaries and speaking darkly of a media conspiracy against the Trinamool Congress. Recently, Banerjee was accused of trying to prevent reporting on the communal clashes in Dhulagarh.
Individuals have not escaped the chief minister’s wrath either – a university teacher circulating a cartoon of Banerjee and her party colleague, Mukul Roy, found himself behind bars in 2012; women’s rights activists protesting against a rape and murder in Kamduni were charged with breaking security provisions at the state secretariat the next year.
In Bengal, detractors have routinely been branded “Maoists” and criticism has been labelled “conspiracy”, first by the Left, then by the Right, then by a fantastic coalition of the BJP, the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The chief minister’s current war on demonetisation is characterised by this same impatience for democratic debate and differing points of view. Instead of challenging the BJP on the very real problems with demonetisation, Banerjee has cast it as a great moral battle, a “movement”, through which the policy, and the party which put it in place, must be extinguished. It mirrors the BJP’s championing of demonetisation as the great moral project that punishes the corrupt.
The agitational habits of opposition have been Banerjee’s trademark as a politician. It helped her topple the 34-year-old Left bastion in Bengal, and it has characterised her government ever since – few other parties with a two-thirds majority in the state legislature would find it necessary to sit on dharnas or organise protest blockades.
But while Banerjee competes for the mantle of chief opposition leader at the Centre, she must separate it from her role as chief minister of Bengal. As the head of government in Bengal, she has several vital functions to perform. They include extending political rivals the right to dissent, ensuring the security of supporters and detractors alike, allowing the free flow of information.
By omitting to rein in the excesses of her party workers, Banerjee betrays some of the same illiberal attitudes she condemns in the BJP. Much depends on shedding these attitudes – her credibility as chief minister as well as the credibility of the opposition to demonetisation.