There was no change from West Bengal’s tradition of political violence and bloody elections when voters in Bidhannagar, also known as Salt Lake, Rajarhat, also known as New Town, Asansol and Bally went to polls. Ruling parties in West Bengal have found violence as the best way of guaranteeing outcomes that legitimise absolute political control. This time, the ruling party simply overdid it. And, was unapologetic about it.
It took Mamata Banerjee a week to realise that her party had played into the hands of the opposition by getting provoked to behave outrageously and exercise absolute control over processes that were established to check and balance the blatant misuse of power. In doing so, Banerjee has issued an open invitation to the opposition to carry on its campaign of proving that neither she nor her administration has the legitimacy to rule that comes with free and fairly exercised public choice through peaceful and transparent elections.
Having beaten up old people, at least 18 journalists, captured booths, indulged in open false voting with an army bussed in from outside Bidhannagar, and flaunted power with police blessings in Bidhannagar, all captured on camera by the media on 3 October, the Trinamool Congress went overboard by accusing the CPM of orchestrating the violence. It compounded its folly by pushing the fairly meek former West Bengal State Election Commissioner, Sushanta Ranjan Upadhyay, to resign and installed in his place a principal secretary of the West Bengal government, known for his proximity to the Chief Minister and with a matchless capacity to defend the indefensible. The temporary appointee did what was expected and ordered token re-polling.
In doing so, the Trinamool Congress, as the ruling party, has made invalid the legitimacy of the entire election process in political and public perception. Now that she is on the defensive, Banerjee has reacted by ordering the opposition to shut up. If the ruling party had thought that it had succeeded in delivering a message to every non-Trinamool Congress group to keep out of the way of the ruling party, now and in the future, it could not have been more mistaken.
This overkill has produced victories for the TMC that were a foregone conclusion anyway. There are three reasons for it. The division of opposition votes puts the TMC in first place by default. None of the opposition parties had worked hard enough to snatch victory from known defeat in any of these places. And each of the opposition parties was praying for a windfall, that a split in votes would deliver triumphs. Veterans in the Communist Party of India Marxist certainly knew as did the veterans of the trade union movement in Asansol and Bally that the Trinamool Congress had the strength to muster votes for victory. In Bidhannagar, the CPI-M knew that it had virtually no votes in the added areas of the New Town. It was also told by the 30% Marwari voters of the overwhelmingly affluent Bidhannagar that their votes would go to the Trinamool Congress. The hard-headed leadership of the CPI-M did not expect pensioners and the depoliticised middle class to rescue the party from inevitable defeat. But they certainly wanted to shake the Trinamool Congress out of its cocoon of comfort.
The craving for validation through the vote to the point of unchallenged supremacy has been a hallmark of the TMC ever since it captured West Bengal in 2011. The reappearance of the red flag in Siliguri, where the CPI-M’s Ashok Bhattacharjee has regained lost ground, the blooming of the lotus and BJP’s entry into the political arena — even though it seems to be withering early — the refusal of the Congress to die out, have contributed to the Trinamool Congress’ uneasiness about the future.
It has wasted the best opportunity that it had before the 2016 state Assembly polls, to test its popularity instead of manufacturing support. For the opposition, especially the Left, this use of brute force has boosted its standing as the principal challenger with power enough to rattle the TMC, even if it knows that it cannot overturn the ruling party in 2016.