Deaths, Duopoly, Election - The Case of “West Bengal Panchayat Polls 2023”
The first step of forming a political duopoly starts with this, spot violence, get involved, get highlighted, and the rest will be carried by unscrupulous media.
By Akash Sarkar
29th July, 2023
Image- Created with Bing AI
The results of recently concluded “peaceful” and “orderly” rural polls in West Bengal have left, other than its usual recrimination, two major queries; one, is TMC still worth; and two, whether BJP is worth giving a chance.
Marred by not-so-unprecedented acrimony, the three-tier polling process started to witness violence ahead of the polling day, and around 16 people, as reported, were dead on 8th July, the first day of voting.
Around 40 persons(unofficial, and more or less as per needs) from different orientations have lost their lives on and off the polling process with cases of post-poll violence making to the “2min flash news headlines” as well as in most of the prime-time shows of Bengali news channels. Where, in this regard, aggressive criticism of the state government over its inability to hold a fair and peaceful election has led to the first query, the latter came corollary.
On the surface, the results show that TMC is still withholding its dominance in rural areas of the state with around 71.51% (as per reports on West Bengal State Election Commission’s web portal) of the total seats of Panchayat Samiti(7855 out of 9730), Zilla Parishad(879 out of 978), and Gram Panchayat(44105 out of 63229) combined while losing ground in districts like Purulia, Jhargram, Bankura, Pashchim Medinipur, and Uttor Dinajpur.
The loss, here, came out as more significant as it meant gain for BJP. Not only did Bhartiya Janata Party surpass the Left and Congress, and bloomed as a strong competitor and an unavoidable headache to the ruling party, but the hard-line saffron party has also increased its vote share from approx. 11.19% to around 15%. Given that this time the total number of seats increased by 15123, this growth of BJP sure is commendable and was not really unexpected by AITC.
Change in Political Leadership Landscape in Bengal
Since the 2016 West Bengal Legislative Assembly election, the political map of West Bengal has changed a lot, during that time, after contesting in 291 seats along with Morcha Janamukti Party, BJP was able to win barely 3 seats. Part of the reason was, at that time, the primary opposition parties to TMC were the Indian National Congress and Communist Party of India(Marxist), and the whole of Mahajot. Going further back in 2011, after contesting in 289 seats, BJP won 0 seats in total. In the 2014 Indian General Election, 2 seats were all BJP could get. Such, then, was the position of the Bhartiya Janta Party in Bengal.
Now, the tables have turned quite dramatically. In West Bengal during the 2019 Indian General Election, BJP won 18 seats (40.64% of the total seats in the state). And if that wasn’t enough, adding to the pain of the ruling party were the results of the 2021 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Election, where BJP won 77 seats, that’s a +74 increase from its previous performance, leaving not just TMC in awe. And as for the panchayat elections – the grassroots level of West Bengal- the trend, as set and shown by the results, is that BJP is improving and penetrating effectively.
Why Such a Change?
What revolution has Bhartiya Janata Party brought to get such a strong foothold in West Bengal, stands as the most conspicuous question at the moment. Like it happened how CPI(M) came into power and the Naxalite movement and national emergency of 1975-77 played catalytic roles to replace Congress; later Industrial land acquisition turned instrumental in the rise of TMC, nothing as such is seen and no catalyst can be found in the rise of BJP.
Topped with TMC’s poor crisis management during Amphan and failure to dismiss allegations in several scams (Sharada, Narada, cut-money, and the recent Recruitment Scam), which have become the most used weapon of BJP, albeit with less attribution to Sharada and Narada, as the big names involved in those scams are now under the shades of the saffron lotus; and now the inability of TMC to hold a peaceful election being added to the equation, if not Mamata Banerjee herself, what could be the biggest reason behind rising BJP in Bengal?
Turns out, in addition to Banerjee’s poor management, a well-organized 360-degree communication strategy that goes unnoticed often due to the “unwavering support of a wide swathe of uncritical mainstream media” of Bengal is into the bargain as well.
In a country like India and especially in a state like West Bengal where they say Jor jar muluk tar (roughly meaning “might is right” ), corruption and unaccountability alone can’t be enough to shake a ruling party. Because in the absence of a major catalyst, a ruling party always has just that right amount of might.
If green dress means TMC and saffron mean BJP, is there a chance that they exchanged clothes to throw sand on each other’s faces? If a gang of goons is rigging polling booths and someone is recording them, how much is the chance that those goons, instead of looking into the camera and moving their eyes away, would snatch the camera and physically assault the one whose recording? If ballot papers that have stamps on BJP and CPI(M) or INC are found, how much is the chance of those being fake? Why are most videos of violence referenced from social media(Twitter, mostly) where fake and misleading news is at its peak? And many other critical questions can be raised against the reports provided by mainstream media during the panchayat election.
Besides, political murders are hard to interpret these days. Whoever dies, the scenario is the same, one party claims that the opposition murdered and the opposition blames group conflict within that party members for the murder. On top of that, it is becoming increasingly common and easy to mention “the truthfulness has not been verified from our end” and influence people.
One evening, during the panchayat election, ABP Ananda from their array of only-political-and-nothing-else news runs in their flash news headline a murder of a BJP worker, they reported the murder, recorded BJP’s “Trinomuler gundara mereche” (“goons of TMC has murdered”), and as I was waiting for the total coverage of the views of both side, ABP Ananda, probably the second most watched Bengali news channel, ends the news by saying “Although, the allegations have been rejected by Trinomul”. No face, no word, based on what logic they rejected the allegation remained a secret.
That’s the same media house that records the BJP’s “goshti donde hotya hoyeche ekhon amader naam kharap korchhe”(“it’s an inter-group conflict among TMC workers, they are using the incident to throw mud on us”) when a TMC worker gets murdered and allegations are on BJP.
The first step of forming a political duopoly starts with this, spot violence, get involved, get highlighted, and the rest will be carried by uncritical media.
How It’s Taking Place?
As happens with most new products in the market, before creating demand or even interest, raising awareness of the product becomes a foremost priority, because if people don’t know about the product how and why would they buy it? And given the previous non-existent state of the BJP in West Bengal, it too required a boost in terms of awareness among the general masses of Bengal about the party’s existence.
After winning the 2014 Indian General Election and gaining control of the centre, BJP had already shined bright enough to get some attention but not enough to overthrow other oppositions (mainly Left) of TMC and become the only worrisome factor.
Thus, BJP chose political violence- “a familiar marker of Bengal politics”– as a primary resource for their raising awareness programs, putting aside Hindutva for later. What preceded, after, and onward 2016 in each election and throughout the years, that their focus turned to becoming the most-in-news party alongside TMC.
The same tactic that was used by TMC, though with less stress, back in the days of the Left regime in the state, by protesting against the Tata-Singur agenda – the one rare attempt of a communist party shaking hands with a capitalist – TMC was able to become one of the most noticed opposition to CPI(M) despite being a fairly new party, and later assumed control of the state.
BJP, in their turn, was right to understand that a slow-paced approach is required in Bengal rather than an aggressive one. “For the BJP, the risk is that such a mega-campaign may hurt Bengal’s sub-nationalist sentiments” because a party that is alien to the population if directly turns against a government formed by a local party it will run the risk of turning into an intruder.
Also, the fear of hurting the sentiments of a population that has long been calling itself Bengali and not Hindu or Muslim has been halting the pro-Hindu campaign in Bengal, which has worked for most of the BJP-ruled states, the one divide-and-rule strategy is still waiting for its full implementations. The modus operandi, then, was to 1. Highlight yourself, and become known; 2. Keep down other noises, and lessen the competition by becoming louder than anyone. 3. Downlight your adversary.
“an analysis of past data shows that political violence and related deaths peaked during and around all the recent polls in West Bengal” The Hindu reported citing the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project’s dataset. Numerically, the data referred to in this report was 306 incidents of political violence recorded in 2016, 436 in 2017, 1001 in 2018(Panchayat Election year), 1027 in 2019(Lok Sabha Election year), and 333, 235 in 2020, 2021 respectively.
While these reports help most news publishers to affiliate political violence with West Bengal as an age-old legacy of the state’s politics, which was “sown deep inside its political ethos in the 1960s”; it comes often easier to ‘sow’ in the minds of the general public, that BJP is the saviour in such a situation of injured democracy, since they are the one most seen to fight against AITC’s destructive leadership.
What gets ignored, however, is the possibility that such peaked-during-recent-polls political violence could also mean that BJP has successfully got their attention, other than why would people move from Left to Right so aggressively. So much so that from being a moderately tough competitor to TMC, the Left scored an absolute 0 in the 2019 Indian General Elections.
One reason for such poor performance of CPI(M), which some intellectuals fancy, is that some low-level as well as high-level workers of the Left itself left the party to join BJP because, apparently, the Communist Party was failing to protect its worker from the “intimidation of the TMC”; and dissatisfaction over CPI(M) joining hands with ISF(Indian Secular Front) which supposedly was against the “ideology of the party”.
But sudden jump in the ranks of these shifting-towards-right workers after joining the BJP indicates to a different agenda behind their change of ideology.
Sukanta Majumdar from Balurghat of South Dinajpur district for example, being a MLA from CPI(M), never got a chance to fight as a representative in any parliamentary election. And after joining BJP in 2014, contested in the Lok Sabha election from the Balurghat seat for the first time in the same year and in 2019 as well, later in 2021 he was made state president of the party.
Similarly, Shankar Ghosh from Siliguri constituency, after his long stay of some 30 years in CPI(M), left the party apparently because of “dissatisfaction”, interestingly enough, on 12 March 2021, just before the state assembly elections.
Additionally, such reasoning of we-lost-workers doesn’t tell why the rise of BJP’s vote share is more than CPI(M) was able to get in any election after 2011.
Some intellectuals and political observers, if not most of them, give the credit of rising BJP to the RSS as well. “With the help of the RSS, the BJP can monitor fund distribution, identify problems, and plug gaps at the booth level while gathering grassroots information” Observer Research Foundation notes.
And referring to the fact that Bengal wasn’t ever standing too far away from “right-wing thought or politics” and with the long-existing RSS footprints in different districts and “far-flung tribal areas of the state”, Monobina Gupta, Managing Editor at The Wire, writes “the strands of right-wing conservatism and political ideology that were an inseparable part of Bengal’s history, didn’t seem to alert the Leftists to a possible future challenge.” and neither “when Narendra Modi-led government rode to power at the Centre with a thumping majority in 2014”.
Most of these arguments, set forth by the Bangali intellectuals, over BJP’s growth, seem to be ideologically driven, and not critically thought on the grounds of how effectively BJP is using all the communication channels, where ideology isn’t the primary factor driving their fame. The “social media powerhouse” that BJP has become, is a factor no news channels and intellectuals give much credit to.
How active some Twitter accounts become during every election, to disseminate how violence-led the election is, and BJP workers being beaten, and TMC workers being beaten.
And in the meantime, BJP’s “rewriting campaign finance rules to give itself unfair access to dark money” isn’t something newsworthy.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Prodyut Bora, the founder of BJP’s IT cell, lamented that “‘madness’ has now gripped the BJP and the desire to win elections at any cost has ‘destroyed the very ethos’ of the party he was once a part of”.
When there is a clear admission of BJP’s abusive nature towards aggressive campaigning by their very foundation builders like Prodyut Bora and Rajesh Jain, this does not count as a force multiplier for BJP’s increasing vote share in Bengal if we were to believe the Bangali intellectuals stuck-still in the ideological debate.
The mainstream media, by highlighting “The killing of TMC workers by the BJP and vice versa”, is deliberately or inadvertently promoting and fulfilling the first and second steps of BJP’s aim to passively influence the Bengal masses.
In a report, that followed right after the Manipur viral video incident that broke widespread outrage all over the country, Hindustan Times writes about two women being assaulted and stripped in Malda, shared by BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya on Twitter.
In the report, HT media correspondent first gives the views of BJP and then of TMC after adding that “Even though senior police officers of the district did not take calls and some refused to comment”, and when the politicizing is done, they added the actual incident “according to locals” which was supposed to be the actual news, this burdened necessity of giving actual news being done, the report further proceeds and concludes with BJP MP Locket Chatterjee’s “reports”.
Loket Chatterjee, who broke into tears, and claimed a party worker being “stripped, groped and paraded naked at Panchla in West Bengal’s Howrah on July 8 when panchayat elections were being held” by “unknown individuals associated with the rival party”, it is interesting how those individuals were “unknown” but known ‘enough’ to be from the “rival party”. No report from any local has been recorded.
It’s worth noticing, how, in these reports only BJP(first) and TMC(second) are mostly mentioned, and Congress and CPI(M) apparently have no interest in increasing their vote banks. That could be a blurred picture and a tactic for highlighting the duopoly. Even though other oppositions have their opinions, highlighting them could mean a true democracy in Bengal and a risk to the communication strategy of BJP.
Coming back to the panchayat elections, Rahul Sinha, BJP leader of the state, has refused to even accept this “loot ka vote” as “had this been people’s vote, the result would have been different”. What “people’s vote” looks like must, then, invite comparisons with rural polls in Madhya Pradesh just the year before. Since they know better about “people’s vote”, a BJP-led state must have set an example of it on similar grounds.
“In Datia, a group of local goons picked up the ballot box from the polling booth and filled it with water from a hand pump in Barodi village. The miscreant also tried to break the ballot box with sticks” reported Free Press Journal. Adding to the report “At a polling booth in Madhya Pradesh’s Rajgarh district, a group of 15-20 men armed with lathis looted polling material after assaulting the presiding officer and others at the polling booth”.
Most of the violence took place during the first phase of the election and didn’t make too many headlines. This, however, still seems less catastrophic than what people witnessed in West Bengal.
The issue with less violence, however, is that it could not always be attributed and connected to fair and square elections. Violence happens when there is competition and opposition, “there are 4555 posts of Panch, out of which 3117 Panches were elected unopposed,” SDM Munshi Singh Sikarwar told ANI, he added, “In the four tehsils, there were 17 posts of district panchayat members, 100 posts of the Janpad Members, out of which 2 candidates were elected unopposed, out of about 331 posts of sarpanch, 16 candidates were elected unopposed”.
BJP won the election with a vast majority as they bagged district panchayat president and vice-president in 41 districts, and unlike in West Bengal, the second-position holders came out mostly as insignificant with victories in 9 districts for Indian National Congress and 1 for the Gondwana Ganatantra Party.
BJP also won the panchayat election in Bengal if the goal was the third and final part of their communication strategy (downlighting the adversary). Winning the panchayat election might not be the best result ahead of the Loksabha elections if it meant a lost chance of showing people how bad-for-healthy-democracy their current government is.
But the peaked political violence report of West Bengal, be it done by TMC or BJP or INC, or CPI(M), only indicates how the political sphere is downgrading in the state along with its ever-sinking boat of pseudo-democracy. The role of the ruling party in all this cannot be avoided just as much as the role of the fourth pillar of democracy, as it seems both of them left responsibilities at their desks to entertain politics.
If the irresponsibility of state government regarding providing a fair and peaceful election process is a reason to downvote the ruling party in the name of saving democracy; what too is important for the population is to understand at their full will the option that they are opting for, because neither poll-related violence nor generating-mass-consent through unhealthy campaigning is healthy for a democracy.
Besides, apart from allegations of corruption against TMC and light-hearted Hinduism, BJP has not yet clarified how they will bring development to Bengal and how, after, assuming power they can reduce political violence and assure the public that, like previous rulers, BJP will not abuse their power to remain in power. ♣