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The Big Story: Bengal vendetta

There is near-consensus amongst political analysts that the current Bharatiya Janata Party has a hunger for winning political power that is rarely matched by other parties. Unfortunately, this hunger has, in the past few years, often led to a troubling undermining of democratic norms.

A glimpse of this was seen in West Bengal over the past week as the Union government’s Central Bureau of Investigation suddenly arrested two senior ministers, one MLA and one politician – all from the Trinamool Congress – on May 17.

Bitter campaign

The arrest was the latest incident in months of bitter political conflict between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Trinamool Congress as West Bengal went to the polls. The campaign itself raised troubling questions about India’s democracy, with the Election Commission facing serious allegations that it was bending inordinately to the BJP’s demands. For example, the body refused demands to shorten the election or curtail campaigning even as the second Covid-19 wave was exploding in India, doing so only once Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to stop campaigning.

The BJP’s massive push did not achieve its desired result, with the Trinamool going on to sweep the elections. However, the verdict only exacerbated the political bitterness in the state. Immediately after this, Bengal saw a wave of election violence, much of it led allegedly by Trinamool cadre with the BJP claiming most of the victims were its workers.

Post-election chaos

The Trinamool, on the other hand, got little time to savour its victory. Within days of the new cabinet being formed, it found two of its senior ministers in jail under a seven-year old corruption case.

More chaos followed: immediately after the arrest, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee rushed for a sit-in at the CBI headquarters in Kolkata where her ministers were held with large numbers of violent Trinamool workers gathered outside. Meanwhile, in a blow to the BJP, only a few hours after the arrest, a special CBI court granted bail to the arrested politicians.

The drama should have ended there – but not in the India of 2021. In a remarkable move, the CBI simply ignored the court’s orders and continued to detain the accused. Meanwhile, it wrote to the acting chief justice of the Calcutta High Court and, in a lightning hearing without the accused being represented, attained a stay.

Eventually, it took a hearing by the Calcutta High Court on May 21, to release the ministers from jail. However, the bench split on the issue of bail. One judge favoured it while the acting chief justice – who had acted on the CBI’s letter on May 17 – ordered house arrest. Eventually, the ministers were placed under house arrest with a larger bench being constituted to hear their eventual appeal.

Institutions collapse

Concerns over India’s democracy backsliding have been raised for some time. The newsletter covered it ahead of these elections, back in March. This affair was a stark reminder that the process is very much ongoing. The Bharatiya Janata Party had suffered a humiliating defeat in a high-stakes election. Rather than accept this clear democratic verdict, the BJP-led Centre was pushing institutions to breaking point in its quest to wield some power in West Bengal.

Just after the election, the state governor Jagdeep Dhankar went on a state-wide tour accompanied by BJP politicians, visiting alleged victims of political violence. As it had been before the polls, it was clear that the BJP expected the governor – and not the party’s state unit – to be its main face in Bengal. While governors in India have played a politically partisan role since the post was created in its present form, Dhankar’s dropping of all pretence and publicly playing the role of an opposition leader is a new sort of democratic dysfunction, given that it would mean a constitutional head publicly at loggerheads with an elected government.

That the Central Bureau of Investigation – long castigated for its politically-partisan role – was used to arrest senior ministers of a new government was even more troubling. Assembly elections are meant to decide who will wield power in the state. But if that can so easily be undermined by a vindictive Central government, this raises serious questions about both Indian democracy and federalism.

This is “a reminder that as BJP begins to lose prestigious battles, its commitment to peaceful transitions will be tested,” wrote political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, summing up the importance of what had just happened in West Bengal for the rest of the country.

The third point of concern was the Calcutta High Court. Senior Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaisingh bluntly called the court’s order a sign of the “death of rule of law” given its ignored the court’s own rules. “I am amazed that an order staying a judicial order granting bail has been passed, not on an appeal from that order, but on the basis of a letter written by email by the CBI to the Acting Chief Justice of the High Court,” Jaisingh argued. “What happened in the High Court of Calcutta was not a procedure established by law.”

The Trinamool was placed in an odd situation. Even as it had won a massive mandate from the voters of Bengal, the institutional decline of Indian democracy – and with it federal structure – meant that it was off to a rather shaky start.

A weak BJP

While the post-election events in Bengal underline the fragile state of Indian democracy, they also underline just how shaky the BJP is in West Bengal right now. Much of the party’s push during the 2021 Assembly elections was driven by Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s strategy of wooing defectors from the Trinamool. This clearly failed, with Mamata Banerjee’s political popularity too hegemonic within the state to be overwhelmed by a few defections.

Post election, this puts the BJP in a particularly difficult position. The state unit has little to offer these defectors having failed to win power. That the high command in Delhi also has little to offer can be gauged from the fact that both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have desisted from commenting on the post-poll violence, preferring to preserve their already scarce political capital to contain the fallout of the second wave and allegations of mismanagement by the Centre.

Without carrots, the BJP has used the CBI action as a stick. Thus while the immediate impact of the arrests was felt by the Trinamool, much of this messaging was probably intended for the BJP’s own leaders as warning should they be thinking of defecting. Notably, two of the biggest defectors to the BJP – Suvendhu Adhikari and Mukul Roy – are accused in the very same case that the CBI arrested the ministers for. Notably, however, the action also comes at a political cost to the Bengal BJP given it is seen as hindering the actions of a legitimately elected government – an especially stark charge given that the state is now under lockdown.

Federal fautline

Whether the BJP will be able to keep up the pressure required to prevent defections in the months and years to come remains to be seen. Already on Saturday and Sunday, with ministers still under house arrest, the BJP’s Sonali Guha and Sarala Murmu spoke out about going back to the Trinamool – which both leaders had defected from just before the election – underlining just how unthinking Amit Shah’s strategy of accepting just about any disgruntled TMC leader was.

For the BJP, West Bengal is a lesson – while the use of its incredible resources and use of state power has brought it great success in defeating in most of Congress in north, central and western India, this will get much tougher in states ruled by regional formations where the BJP is still a new player. Federalism in turn emerges as India’s main power faultline: even as the BJP remains untouched in New Delhi, it can appear very weak in a state such as West Bengal.

Can’t make this up

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