The unprecedented violence during Sunday’s panchayat polls looks ominously like the beginning of a particularly murky phase in Bengal’s politics. This foreboding of a new cycle of violence is based not merely on the large number of deaths and injuries, but on dark symptoms of failures and frictions all around.
Two fundamental failures were writ large on the bloodbath. The government of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee failed to ensure a peaceful poll. It was in fact a culmination of the government’s failures to protect the Opposition’s right to contest the polls in some parts of the state and to ensure a fear-free atmosphere during the campaign.
This administrative failure had a cause-and-effect relationship with the CPM leadership’s failure to rein in its cadre. That even the chief minister felt helpless in the face of an aggressive party was evident in his appeal to party supporters to allow the Opposition to file nominations. Neither he nor his party leadership could convince anyone that the Trinamul Congress or its ally, the BJP, could not file nominations for thousands of panchayat seats because they could not find candidates.
Unconvinced, the Opposition, too, took to violent means to reply to the Marxist terror. The terror the CPM struck in the Opposition hearts is evidently recoiling on itself.
And this is likely to entangle all parties in more violence in the coming months. As Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee keeps saying, the Opposition sees no future for itself in democratic contests because it believes the CPM will never allow these. The Opposition’s only strategy, therefore, is to increase the heat on the Marxists and hope for some kind of Central intervention.
This Opposition was not so desperate during the 2001 Assembly polls because Mamata genuinely believed that the Left’s days in power were finally at an end and that she could still achieve this through democratic means. No longer does she think so.
The Opposition may not have any choice but to keep the heat on. The panchayat polls were to set the stage for the Lok Sabha elections less than a year away. This was the time for Mamata to recover from the ruins of the Assembly polls and put her house in order. The CPM’s show of force foiled her chances of doing that and thereby greatly impaired her fighting abilities in the next parliamentary polls. As an Opposition leader, she cannot— and will not — take the Marxist onslaught lying down because that would take the edge out of her next battle.
Given the CPM’s ruthless attempts to stamp out her challenge and the administration’s inability to function independently, that could mean more violence in the coming months. The parliamentary polls will be followed by elections to 70-odd municipalities all over the state and finally to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation in 2005.
The curtain may go up on this new phase of bitterly confrontational politics in the state as and when Mamata decides her next course of action. It could be the boycott of the Assembly and a call to party activists to take to the streets.
If this means unleashing other forces of violence, the Marxists will find a double fault in them — they were responsible for this turn of events and they may suffer as big casualties as the others.
But there is no doubt that Bengal is in for another period of political turmoil and, worse, bitter partisan violence.