The Big Story: Battleground Bengal
On Sunday, violence returned to West Bengal. As citizens voted in civic polls, party workers roamed about brandishing firearms, hurling petrol bombs, damaging electronic voting machines, beating up voters and heckling journalists. In a number of booths, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party candidates withdrew. The state election commission chief reportedly remained unreachable, deaf to frantic appeals made by Opposition parties in the state. Presumably, the violence was not the monopoly of only one party. But the ruling dispensation, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress, has a lot to answer for.
The Trinamool’s election conduct has always left much to be desired. Ever since the party came to power in 2011, unseating the 34-year-old Left Front government, Bengal has slowly returned to the kind of poll violence and intimidation that was fading. The Assembly elections of 2016 left at least one person dead, and the ear of a Left Front party worker was sliced off. Before that, in 2013, a nervous Trinamool had gone into panchayat elections just after the Sarada chit fund scam broke, implicating several party leaders. The party swept the polls, but not without violence that killed at least 10, left policemen injured and houses damaged. In about 11% of the seats, the party won unopposed. In many places, Opposition candidates were forced to go underground after filing their nominations.
This habit of brute force could be underpinned by a new panic. Over the last few years, the BJP party has been gaining ground in the state, adding to its vote share and promising to unseat the Left as the chief opposition. While the Assembly election results showed it was still a long way off, the saffron party has taken keen interest in the state, with BJP president Amit Shah declaring their new slogan was “Ebar Bangla”, This time Bengal. The BJP’s rising graph in the state has been accompanied by simmering communal tensions and ugly spats with the Trinamool. But the ruling party in the state is challenged from the left as well as the right. A few months ago, protests against a power plant in Bhangar gave rise to scenes that were reminiscent of the famous confrontations at Singur and Nandigram. Interestingly, Banerjee had been at the forefront of protests against land acquisition by the ruling dispensation then.
The Trinamool’s formidable support bank is still far from crumbling. But if the party is to maintain credibility, both in its home turf and at the national level, it must ensure that elections are conducted peacefully and opposition workers are allowed to function freely.
The Big Scroll
Shoaib Daniyal explores the explosive Trinamool-BJP rivalry in Bengal.
Subrata Nagchoudhary reports on the land agitation in Bhangar, reminiscent of Singur and Nandigram, which became the first big challenge to Banerjee’s undisputed reign.
- In the Indian Express, Hilal Ahmed challenges the idea of Muslim homogeneity, explaining how different contexts in different states shape the community’s political preferences.
- In the Hindu, RK Raghavan on how the police’s perception of public safety, and their own role in it, is changing, but all too slowly.
- In the Telegraph, Manini Chatterjee argues that the Election Commission must allay fears about electronic voting machines.
Faisal Fareed on the Bahujan Samaj Party’s possible change of tack:
“With Siddiqui’s expulsion, it is now clear the Bahujan Samaj Party has decided to tone down its pursuit of Muslim voters. The action against Siddiqui has led to resentment in the community. ‘It is nothing new for BSP,’ said Syed Asif Raza Jafri, an Urdu journalist. ‘During her [Mayawati’s] first tenure as chief minister, she sacked minister Dr Masood from the party. After every election, she shifts the blame upon Muslims for her defeat. Siddiqui also met the same fate.’
Feroze Waziri, who owns a carpet export unit in Uttar Pradesh, said Mayawati had never tried to cultivate leaders. ‘She always preferred money over leaders,’ he said. ‘The result is obvious. Muslims are an easy scapegoat.’”