How Mamata Banerjee has outdone the Left in muffling democratic voices in West Bengal

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The Trinamool regime is very much reminiscent of the communist rule; only the scale, the sophistication with a light democratic veneer, is much higher than what the Left did in its heydays.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee nominated her loyalist and cabinet minister Firhad Hakim as the Mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Veteran councillor and Trinamool Congress leader Atin Ghosh had to reconcile himself, a second time, to the Deputy Mayor’s post.

TMC Member of Parliament from South Kolkata and senior TMC leader Mala Roy was nominated Chairperson of the KMC. By re-nominating a serving cabinet minister as the Mayor of a city like Kolkata which requires more than full-time attention and application, by re-nominating a sitting Member of Parliament as the KMC’s Chairperson, Mamata Banerjee has exposed the lack of leadership, talent and capacity in her party. It is another matter that being perennially paranoid, Mamata Banerjee has not allowed or enabled a broad leadership base to grow in the party.

The selection of the Mayor and Chairperson demonstrates the TMC’s casual commitment towards transforming Kolkata into a millennium city. In the decade that it has occupied the KMC, the party has failed to evolve a minimum roadmap on how this city, once the cultural, political and commercial hub of India, could be reinstated to a certain degree of primacy among the cities of India. To think that the Kolkata Mayor’s chair was once occupied by the likes of Deshbandhu CR Das, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, Dr BC Roy, Phanindra Nath Brahma and Sanat Kumar Roychowdhury, among others, and to see it now being relegated to a part-time occupation, exposes the TMC’s actual intention — allow Kolkata to wallow while taking no initiative to develop new cities or better existing ones.

For those of us who saw it at close quarters and for those who contested the KMC elections, the entire exercise came across as a farce, a sort of mock drill with no real equipment, instrument — driven and done through dummies, a process which was predetermined, a dummy-like run through of phases. Throughout the day one saw no queues or voters’ crowd in polling stations and yet the state Election Commission announced that the voting percentage was over 60 percent.

All through the polling day, one saw the kind of intimidation and violence that TMC supporters and hired cadres indulged in. BJP candidates bore the maximum brunt of TMC’s hoodlumism, while CPI(M) and Congress candidates were not spared either. Physical assault, obstruction, intimidation, blood-spilling and bomb hurling were rampant in a number of booths with poll officials on duty either colluding or surrendering before such assaults. For those who watched both the municipal polls — in Tripura and in Kolkata — the contrast was stark. In Tripura, polling day was peaceful and orderly; in fact, even TMC candidates conceded that there was no disturbance at all. On the other hand, in Kolkata, areas had turned into war zones.

While post-poll violence spread across West Bengal in May 2021, the CPI(M) and Congress had looked the other away and ignored this inhuman display of an essentially fascist mindset. In the KMC polls, they were at the receiving end of a slightly milder version of that violence and they still continue to maintain silence, jettisoning their cadres. Their intellectual brigades have not as much as whimpered against this scale of violence and intimidation. Their commitment to human rights is only limited to castigating Narendra Modi and for consumption in BJP-ruled states. Not one of them took out a procession of protests or issued statements condemning the violence or in support of their cadres.

Not only was violence resorted to on election day, during the campaign, as one moved from house to house, or addressed street corner meetings, ‘patho-sabhas’ (a staple in any elections in West Bengal), one saw the palpable fear among voters. It was as if the majority of the people of Kolkata had already abdicated in fear. One saw BJP posters torn down, the Lotus knifed out of it and the candidate’s face in it pock-marked with cigarettes. All the while the state Election Commission declared that preparations were afoot in right earnest and the elections would be free and fair. Day after day, all through the campaign, BJP posters, festoons and flags, in most parts of the city, especially in the southern part, were torn out and strewn on the roads.

Despite being directed, the state Election Commission did not fulfil its duty of covering every booth with CCTVs and often where these CCTVs were installed they were tampered with. One needs to recall that to date, the Mamata Banerjee administration has not shared or made public the CCTV footage of the vandalisation of Ishawar Chandra Vidyasagar’s bust in May 2019, during Union Home Minister and then BJP national president Amit Shah’s road-show in Kolkata. Such was the brazen hooting out of democracy and the process of election resorted to by the TMC and its minions in the administration. The entire process was reminiscent of the days of communist rule, only the scale, the sophistication with a light democratic veneer, was much higher than what the Left did in its heydays.

A report by the West Bengal BJP tabled at the party’s national executive meet in Madras in July 1990, of the Kolkata municipal polls held in June 1990, comes across as strikingly contemporary: “On the day of the poll in areas of absolute CPI(M) supremacy in about 40 wards these anti-social [heavily armed and brought in from outside Kolkata] started moving around from the morning scaring away voters. As a result, genuine voters did not come to vote. After 9 am most of the polling agents of the Congress and the BJP had been driven out of the polling booths… Polling officials kept a silent posture pretending not to have seen anything at all… After 2 pm proxy votes were polled carefully. In numerous areas, CPI(M) cadres were seen with calculators at the polling station camps frantically calculating the number of votes to be cast so as to keep the total polling percentage within the specified limit. Wherever polling officials were not obliging, intimidation was used to bring them to their senses and fall in line with others.”

Mamata Banerjee had promised change, but she has only outdone the Left in asphyxiating the democratic process in West Bengal.

The writer is a member of the BJP national executive committee, and director of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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