Footage of violence in a particular area of Kolkata was all over national television and social media on Monday. However, coverage in local Kolkata and West Bengal media was muted. Apparently, local channels were advised to exercise restraint in view of the communally charged atmosphere. News has a way of getting around and blood curling videos of the attacks were in circulation. Though there have not been major incidents of rioting in the recent past, Kolkata has a long history of communal flare ups from pre-Partition days. Memories of those episodes have been handed down through generations and have taught the affected community to eschew impulsive retaliation. But the wounds and scars remain.
Former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament Swapan Dasgupta tweeted, “The rampaging mob violence… in the Kidderpore-Mominpur region of Kolkata… stems from the distorted empowerment resulting from a belief that one community is above the law.”
This has been a rallying point of his party but unfortunately due to lack of electoral success it has not been able make much headway in its cause. Thus, to a large extent, the current state of affairs can be attributed to the lack of an effective Opposition in the state not today but for over forty years, when the parties in power have wilfully looked the other way, ignoring a silent demographic re-engineering that was happening in the state. This is neither anecdotal nor a matter of perception. A cursory look at the religious and ethnic composition of the state would indicate the change not only at the macro-level but within specific geographic pockets.
Hearing the ruling party, All India Trinamool Congress, spokespersons defending the incidents would give the impression of their living in an alternate universe. They certainly cannot be unaware of the ground realities. Their protestations about biased coverage by the national media, allegedly at the instance of the BJP, sound vacuous. Parallels drawn with incidents in BJP-ruled states are disingenuous. Being in politics they cannot be so naïve as to believe that the people are unaware of what is happening in the surroundings. Then what is the thinking behind such a strategy of dogged denial.
First is the belief that the party’s electoral machinery and captive vote-bank can overcome any Opposition challenge. The results of the 2021 Assembly polls have reinforced this confidence to the point of arrogance. Despite substantial increase in number of seats (going up from 3 to 77) and vote-share (from 10.1 percent to 38 percent), the BJP fell far short of dislodging Trinamool. Its subsequent meltdown revealed organisational weakness and leadership deficit that will be difficult to overcome in the near term. Having learned the hard way, the party’s central leadership is unlikely to repeat the mistake of depending on defectors to topple Trinamool. Among other Opposition parties, the Congress has been decimated and a spent force that appears to be well beyond redemption. The CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist) was razed to the ground. Although showing some signs of revival, it does not look like the proverbial phoenix that can rise from the ashes. That can explain to an extent this attitude of defiance in the face of compelling evidence.
There is a second consideration that may be dictating the stance of Trinamool spokespersons. It is their anxiety to preserve the image of state government given the ambitions of its supreme leader, Mamata Banerjee, to be at the centre of national politics in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections. With several other contenders in the field vying for the lead role in the Opposition cast line up, Banerjee cannot afford any dent in her reputation. Hence, the all-out attempt to ward off any adverse publicity and shift blame towards the Central government.
However, not everything is going in favour of the West Bengal government. The ongoing investigations of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have put the government on a back foot. Even the hype and publicity surrounding the Durga Puja carnival could not wipe away the accumulated negative perception. The communal clashes on the Day of Eid-e-Milad and Kojagari Lakshmi Puja (a very important festival for Bengalis marking the end of Puja festivities) have exposed the malaise and fault lines that have developed over the years.
The BJP is clearing up the ante at every step. Its new leadership duo of Suvendu Adhikari and Sukanta Majumdar are displaying renewed spunk and determination. This was evident in their response to the Kidderpore-Mominpur violence and also “Nabanna Abhijan” before the Pujas. They are routinely escalating the issues to the Central government, which is maintaining a studied silence. Meanwhile, with the Durga Puja season behind, the investigative agencies can be expected to resume their probes with greater gusto — probably leading to some more high-profile arrests and startling revelations. The Trinamool, obviously, understands the implications and are playing its cards carefully. Of late, it has toned down the rhetoric and calibrated its criticism against the Central government.
Raising many eyebrows, changing her earlier stance, Mamata Banerjee gave a virtual clean chit to Narendra Modi saying that the probes had not been initiated at his instance. There were few other reconciliatory moves such as restoring the names of certain Central government-aided schemes such as Rural Housing to Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana (PMGAY). Whether these were prompted by the heat of probes or the dire financial situation of the state is difficult to guess. But the sudden voice modulation is noticeable as is conscious dialling down her share of voice in the national stage.
Some think the Central government is waiting for the situation to ripen for imposing the President’s Rule. But that is unlikely because politically that may not suit the BJP handing over the victim card to Trinamool. So it would rather wait for the party to unravel under its own internal dynamics. The Trinamool may still think it is invincible and impregnable. However, it may be underestimating the simmering anger among the people both on the issues of corruption and socio-religious tensions.
The BJP may take time to get its act together. An unintended beneficiary of this anti-incumbency could be the CPI-M, if it is able to re-mobilise its cadre base under its new state leadership. Md Salim, who assumed charge as West Bengal state secretary, also has access to the dominant minority community. If the CPI-M is able to wean away a slice of that vote-back of Trinamool along with a portion of the anti-incumbency vote, it can put Trinamool in a spot.
Historically, regime change in West Bengal has not happened peacefully. It is a given that the party in power controls the state law enforcement machinery. Except in extraordinary situations such as during President’s Rule or pre-election period. Intervention by the judiciary in matters of law enforcement has limitations. However, it cannot allow the state to be plunged into the kind of anarchy that it saw in the late sixties and early seventies.
West Bengal has the added sensitivity of being a border state. Presence of infiltrators and terrorist sleeper cells cannot be ruled out and it is a threat that the central security establishment cannot ignore. There are no easy answers. Nothing can be achieved unless the state government is aligned and comes on board. At the moment it is showing no mood to buckle. It will require tremendous ingenuity on part of the Central government and the judiciary to avert a looming crisis. Frankly and sadly, the prospects do not look bright for West Bengal at the moment.
The author is a current affairs commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach, who tweets at @SandipGhose. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.