As the Trinamool Congress won the 2021 Assembly election with the largest-ever verdict in the history of West Bengal, a familiar script started to play out.
From across the state, reports poured in of party-versus-party violence. Most of these reports suggested that the Trinamool Congress was responsible for the incidents. However, in some cases, the Trinamool Congress also alleged that its workers had been attacked and killed by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
BJP’s inaccurate communal label
The biggest victim of this violence, the BJP took to social media to highlight the violence against its cadres. In its messages, it portrayed the violence as communal, wrought by Muslims upon Hindus, with senior party leaders explicitly naming communities.
The BJP mobilised its significant social media presence to highlight this violence – spreading fake news in the process, as factcheckers pointed out.
Given the BJP mobilising its significant media presence to portray the violence as communal, even the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – itself a victim of the violence – stepped in to dispute the BJP’s characterisation.
Bengal’s post-poll violence is actually political – not communal
To understand why Bengal’s politics is so violent, we need to understand that the state is a “party-society” – a system where political parties completely occupy the public space in rural Bengal and older forms of social organisation (such as caste or landownership) take a back seat.
This is how academic Partha Chatterjee describes the hegemony of the party in rural Bengal:
“In [West] Bengal, the key term is ‘party’. It is indeed the elementary institution of rural life in the state – not family, not kinship, not caste, not religion, not market, but party. It is the institution that mediates every single sphere of social activity, with few exceptions, if any. This is indeed the true significance of the shift from the old days. Every other social institution, such as the landlord’s house, the caste council, the religious assembly, sectarian foundations, schools, sporting clubs, traders’ associations, and so on, have been eliminated, marginalised or subordinated to the ‘party’. Rural life is literally inconceivable without the party.”
The fall of the feudal Congress system
Like the rest of India, Bengal at the time of Independence had a feudal order with the landlord at the centre of rural life. After transfer of power, the largely conservative Bengal Congress endeavoured to preserve this structure, basing its power on rural landlords. However, it came under increasing strain from peasant movements. Just before Independence, an agitation to increase the sharecropper’s fraction, called the Tebhaga movement, swept Bengal. The 1950s and 1960s saw massive movements against hunger, with Communist-led food riots throwing into chaos Calcutta city.
The 1960s and 1970s were a time of bedlam, as the Congress used incredible violence – including by Central forces – to try and protect landlord property while the communists fought to distribute it to the tillers.
Party society is established
The Congress system eventually keeled over in 1977, with the Left Front taking power. The communists used land redistribution and a newly minted panchayati raj system to end the old feudal order in rural Bengal. The power vacuum left by the exit of the landlords was filed by a new form of control: the party.
So while in other parts of the country, politicians distributed patronage by caste or religion, here it was done by party affiliation. As landlords or caste elite controlled the elected panchayats in other states, political scientist Atul Kohli noted that in West Bengal, party members dictated to local governments.
The Left used this party-society to great effect, ruling with the help of cadre-driven political violence long after it had ceased to be popular. In 2007 and 2008, in an ironic turn of events for a communist party, Left workers even unleashed massive violence in trying to forcibly seize farm land for private corporations.
When the Left fell in 2011, however, party society did not. While the Trinamool used more identity – from communal and caste to gender – it still largely stuck to the party as the main organising force in rural Bengal, even though it was ironically its main victim towards the end of Left rule.
As the BJP became a major contender in Bengal from 2018 onwards, even it adopted party society, taking on large numbers of Trinamool defectors in the (eventually false) hope that they would help it win state power. However, the BJP is now strong enough to attack the Trinamool Congress in certain areas.
Since the election results, with the state administration still in the hands of the Election Commission and Mamata Banerjee yet to be sworn in, the Trinamool Congress alleges that a number of its workers have been killed by the BJP.
Why party society persists
While party society ensures that factors such as caste and communal identity do not take on the political salience they do in states like Uttar Pradesh, it also clearly leads to significant levels of violence.
However, as is obvious from its longevity across time and ruling dispensations, party society is a very effective instrument to cement political power in Bengal, as was seen during 34-years of Left rule.
Something similar is happening now with the Trinamool cadres moving in to use violence in order to try and ensure the BJP is not in a position to challenge it in the near future. This is why the BJP’s labelling of the violence as communal is incorrect. People across communities have got attacked – not only Hindus, as the BJP claims. The only pattern is that by and large, the people getting attacked are from the opposition and the attackers from the Trinamool. The violence is political not communal.
How will the BJP respond?
One of the principal reasons for the BJP’s rise in Bengal is that it could offer better protection from the Trinamool Congress than the Left. This saw Left cadres joining the BJP en masse just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP could do this, given it held Central power as well as significant control over the media. Attacks on BJP cadres attracted far more outrage than similar attacks on the Left.
However, in an ironic turn of events, the BJP at this moment is unable to do the same thing. Its central unit is itself paralysed by the Covid-19 pandemic, with even the federal capital Delhi resembling a disaster zone.
While BJP cadre and sympathisers in Bengal have called for the imposition of the emergency provisions of Central rule, this seems unlikely given Narendra Modi’s weak political position at the moment.
In fact, far from Central rule, neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor Home Minister Amit Shah have even spoken publicly on the violence, busy with handling Covid-19 which has overwhelmed the administrations in many places.
With the cadre feeling abandoned, in a rare instance for the disciplined BJP, workers have spoken out against the leadership for allegedly abandoning them, mirroring the feelings of Left workers from some time ago.