"Bengal exceptionalism" was on display on May 2 when Mamata Banerjee returned full-throttle to office for a record third term, beating back a fierce BJP challenge. But the succulence of her victory is being soured by the violence that has broken out since with gruesome killings, houses and shops being set alight and people in many villages fleeing to save their lives. Some would argue that this too is a gruesome display of "Bengal exceptionalism" (political violence has been endemic in West Bengal for decades during the Left rule, Trinamool terms in power and the recent BJP-versus-Mamata campaign).
Angry party workers violently setting scores while the police watches on the sidelines is a feature of and not a bug in West Bengal politics. I spoke to several leaders across parties and top stakeholders in West Bengal, including senior police officials, for this column; some commented on the record and some off the record. This is a sense of what the various leaders claim. First up, Derek O'Brien, Trinamool party leader in the Rajya Sabha. He dismissed all my questions on why violence has been triggered against BJP workers after one of the most toxic election battles in India's history. "People who are blaming us don't know Bengal at all. Let me tell you, there are three very aggressive factions of the BJP and they are attacking each other. One is the original BJP led by Dilip Ghosh, two is what is called "Five-BJP" led by Mukul Roy, Trinamool defector and his supporters who joined the BJP five years ago, and the third what is called "Tatkal (instant) BJP" led by Suvendu Adhikari and his workers. They are all fighting with each other, with factions trying to take control of the BJP. That is why JP Nadda is coming to Kolkata to broker peace between the three BJP groups". O'Brien also repeated the claim he made on social media that this is an intra-BJP fight because top leaders who he calls "MoSha" had come and spread hatred in West Bengal during the campaign. The Trinamool also claims that the BJP has triggered a massive disinformation campaign to create communal unrest.
On the other hand, the BJP has been trending a demand to enforce President's Rule in Bengal and rejects the Trinamool version of events.BJP President JP Nadda will camp in Kolkata for two days starting today. He says the Trinamool has unleashed a terror campaign against the BJP's cadre to punish them for their commitment to the saffron party.Swapan Dasgupta, who contested and lost the election, claims that law and order in West Bengal has totally broken down and the violence is an assault on Indian democracy. Dasgupta demanded that the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court take suo moto action to stop the wave of political retribution.
Senior police officials told me that the violence will end tomorrow - the day when Banerjee takes oath, This is a shocking admission of police connivance and looking the other way as law and order is crushed but this, they claim, is the Bengal political template. A senior serving police officer said, "The Left did it when they ruled. They broke open Mamata's skull. The Left government allowed cadres to run amok and when Banerjee came (to power), the Trinamool went on the rampage and attacked their old enemy, the Left workers. Banerjee's crackdown was so total that the Left cadre took shelter in the BJP. Now, after this bitter election, this is the ritual bloodletting."
Left workers fleeing to the BJP as political refugees has an element of truth as Banerjee systematically decimated the Left. In extremely significant ways, the Trinamool and the Bengal BJP, hugely made up of Trinamool defectors, mirror each other. The qualities that make Banerjee an excellent street fighter, who fought on the ground to halt the Tata Nano project in Singur, and who campaigned in every constituency in a wheelchair after sustaining a fracture in what she claimed was a BJP attack, also hurt her image as an administrator.
The BJP, which is always an excellent aggressive party in opposition, is running a high-decibel campaign against the violence on its workers. The bitterness of the just-ended campaign continues and keeps breaking out in clashes between the Trinamool and the BJP.
Banerjee has complained that Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke with custom and did not make the customary call to congratulate her on her victory. Modi confined his congrats to a tweet. What Banerjee may be overlooking is that she is the one losing the perception battle right now as the violence continues unchecked. Instead of honing her image as a three-time winning Chief Minister with national ambitions of leading the Opposition, she risks coming across as a partisan and bad administrator.
Banerjee made all the right noises just after the win saying that no victory celebrations should happen because of the pandemic and everyone had to unite to take on the BJP. Even her attack on the Election Commission and the drawn out, eight-phase election, designed to suit the BJP, found resonance with both the public and other political leaders. But now, with the outbreak of violence, the eight phases look justified.
Banerjee needs to publicly call for an end to the violence and demonstrate that she means it. She needs to take a tip or two on perception management from Uddhav Thackeray, Maharashtra Chief Minister, who, like Banerjee, is a constant target of the BJP but manages to more than hold his own while keeping tight rein on his notoriously violent Sena cadre.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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