Last week, Bengal's largest vernacular daily Anandabazar Patrika said in a front-page report that some of its reporters were huddled under a table to avoid splinters of crude bombs while covering the Panchayat elections in the state.
"We were shivering with fear, wondering if hoodlums using those bombs would throw a few through the windows and the bombs would explode inside the room where we were hiding. It was nightmarish," wrote one reporter.
Electoral violence, claim studies, has always been consistently high in Bengal. This time, at the centre of this violence, was an all-time high use of country-made firearms and crude bombs.
The control of panchayats, or village councils, establishes political dominance at the local level and also helps the ruling party to control the rural economy.
Crude bombs were once used by Naxalites in the late 1960s and early 1970s during their pitched street battles with rival political parties and cops. The practice of making these bombs has continued for over six decades.
Once, smaller versions of these crude bombs were manufactured across the state with a licence from the state government. When the licences were cancelled, a whole new small-scale industry mushroomed in the hinterland. For years, these bombs have been sold to members of political parties under the cover of darkness. It's a mini-industry worth crores. Interestingly, the industry grows whenever there is an election in Bengal. Occasionally, these bombs are smuggled to neighbouring Bangladesh and some other Indian states.
Bollywood director Anurag Kashyap, in his movie Gangs of Wasseypur, depicted the making of country-made bombs by criminals in Bihar, even from jails. Many black-and-white Bengali movies, like Aponjon directed by Tapan Sinha, had scenes of political activists singing Rabindrasangeet while tossing around crude bombs like cricket balls and then liberally using them against political rivals.
Cops in Kolkata told this reporter that these bombs are mostly used to create tensions in the neighbourhood; it works very well during elections. Voters avoid going to polling booths the moment they hear deafening blasts. Why risk injury, or worse?
But this time in Bengal, these very bombs and their liberal use by political parties caused devastation across the state, where the ruling Trinamool Congress swept the Panchayat elections with a whopping majority.
The high-voltage violence, rampant booth capturing, and illegal stamping of ballot papers exposed the horrific reality of the election process that left 53 dead despite the presence of central forces. This large-scale rigging desecrated the sanctity of elections to 64,157 seats in Gram Panchayats, Panchayat Samitis, and Zila Parishads in Bengal.
What is alarming is that the central forces, which must work under the jurisdiction of the state police, were not allowed to guard booths. The bloodiest panchayat poll in Bengal in this century was under the CPI(M)'s rule in 2003 when 76 lives were lost. This time, Trinamool Congress cadres resorted to large-scale rigging by capturing booths, driving away polling agents of opposition parties, and stuffing ballot boxes with proxy votes, defiling the entire poll process. In many places, the presiding officers fled polling stations. Violence was reported from all over the state; the Cooch Behar and Murshidabad districts witnessed intense violence and reported the maximum number of deaths.
Opposition leaders said more than 20,000 of the 61,636 polling booths in the state were allegedly captured by Trinamool cadre, and huge numbers of proxy votes were cast. The bloodiest panchayat poll in Bengal in this century was under the CPI(M)'s watch in 2003 when 76 lives were lost. In 2008, the number of dead was 30 and in 2013 (two years after the Trinamool came to power in the state) it was 34.
The political cognoscenti said infighting in the ruling Trinamool was also a major contributor to the violence. The Trinamool's dominance on the ground, unchallenged for over a decade, was facing resistance in various regions. In the panchayat polls in 2018, the party won about a third of the seats without any contest; this time around, it was about 21 percent.
Bengal, claimed experts, is caught in a debilitating, vicious cycle because there is very high unemployment and low activity in the formal sector and extreme corruption for political posts in the state. This, in turn, triggers extraction and corruption by members of the ruling party.
As a result, once violence ended and the results were declared, the focus returned to the state and its future.
Seasoned columnist and market tracker Mudar Patherya, in a brilliantly penned column titled The Best And Worst Of Panchayat Polls, said that he was worried after the polls as an urban resident. "That Didi has swept the Bengal panchayat polls could be the best of news and the worst of news. Best, because it validates what she stands for. Worst, because it could convince her that nothing needs to change".
Patherya wrote it was sad for him to think that there was no big Bengal picture beyond Modi Hatao. "The unspoken vision statement of the Bengal government in four words: Win the next election. On what basis do we convince our children to stay behind after college and work from Calcutta?"
"Didi seeks to remove the government in Delhi when she cannot evict hawker squatters from outside New Market or Chowringhee; or remove overhead cables; or remove vehicle strippers carving away one half of the Mullick Bazar road," wrote Patherya.
I remembered a conversation between the Oberoi family and Trinamool brass for more hotels, to which the Oberois said they first wanted squatters removed from the pavements outside the hotel in Chowringhee.
The columnist said he was distressed to see Bengal not figuring on the futuristic industrial and services radar of India, ostensibly because there were no investments worth mentioning related to renewable energy, artificial intelligence or electric vehicles. "Ten years from now, we will have the same Bengal companies manufacturing the same products with 50 per cent higher capacity and 30 per cent lower manpower, while the industrialists running those companies diversify their investments across the country," he wrote.
"I hope I live to see the day when Bengal vies for a semiconductor chip unit, or Foxconn considers Bengal for an electronic manufacturing location or Bengal is selected as an electric vehicle manufacturing location. For a state that accounted for 22% of India's GDP in the mid-Sixties, we do not even qualify to play in the big tournament today," commented the columnist.
Patherya said even the tourism sector was floundering despite some big-buck endorsements by Shah Rukh Khan. "Shah Rukh's endorsement of Bengal's tourism appeared mismatched (an actor who never spent even a fortnight holidaying in Bengal was championing the state's tourism to the world); I doubt if Bengal even turns up at regional travel and tourism fairs where countries from the world (Saudi Arabia of all countries) pay top dollar to woo Indian tourists".
Patherya's words were reminiscent of a column some years ago by one Aditi Jain, whose father PC Jain was the Managing Director of McNally Bharat.
"Calcutta was a truly global city with a highly diversified demography. Commercial opportunities were considerable and so was the need for expertise. In Calcutta, there was serious money to be made. The tragedy is not that all of this was subsequently destroyed; the tragedy is that it can never be rebuilt," she observed.
"And that is what happened to Calcutta and the entire industrial manufacturing of Bengal since the 1970s. Left Front governments, particularly under the leadership of Jyoti Basu, Bengal's erstwhile Chief Minister, cracked down on the industry and empowered unions to such an extent that factory after factory began to shut permanently."
Jain narrated an incident that rattled her for life. "In 1984, as a young project engineer responsible for a project site in Durgapur, where my employer was contracted to build a material handling plant for Hindustan Fertiliser, I was made to stand on an oil barrel for four hours in the mid-afternoon sun, with the labour unions shouting threatening slogans. The odd part was that I had no clue as to what I had done wrong or indeed what their demands were. Strikes and violence in those years were as common as reporting to work.
"Calcutta, upon which an empire had once been built, now lies reduced to just another fallen star. It has no credible prospect of returning to its former glory, at least in my lifetime. For me and an entire generation of Indians who remember that city for what it once was, that is a dreadful tragedy. Its demise, and indeed that of Bengal, is a clear example of the consequences of disrespect for wealth and those who create it," wrote Jain.
Jain wrote the column around the time the Trinamool swept to power in the state for the second time. Things have turned worse since; trade unions have become tremendously powerful in Bengal, evident during the recent Panchayat polls. This is definitely not a good sign for the state and its future.
(Shantanu Guha Ray is the Asia Editor of Central European News, UK)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.