Violence can be a great leveller. This seems particularly true of West Bengal. The panchayat elections, which took place last month, witnessed several incidents of barbarity. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is emerging as the principal challenger to the ruling Trinamul Congress, claimed that over 50 supporters had lost their lives during the time that preceded the polls. Similar losses were reported by the Left, the Congress and even the TMC. The simmering political rivalries were manifest not only in the form of killings: brutal intimidation of supporters, usually from Opposition parties, was common. Some of the results in the panchayat elections reflected the consequent one-sided nature of the contest. The TMC, for instance, has won 34 per cent of gram panchayat seats uncontested, a feat that dents the party's claim of Bengal being both peaceful and democratic. What is worrying and shameful is that political scores continue to be settled even though the elections are over. Two BJP supporters died under mysterious circumstances in Purulia; one member of the TMC was killed in Bagnan; Cooch Behar also witnessed the slaughter of a Communist Party of India (Marxist) associate.
The inferences are obvious. Elections — supposedly the hallmark of democracy — may not be free or fair in this part of the world. This can only besmirch the spirit of democracy. The allegations of the TMC's violent subordination of its opponents are ironic on another count. The chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has always been vocal against attempts to trample freedom by the Central government. Yet, it appears that she has no hesitation in taking a leaf out of the BJP's book. Is Ms Banerjee then not averse to sharing Narendra Modi's dream of ridding the political turf of the Opposition? What drives such an ambition is the desire to exercise absolute political control, something that undermines the principle of representativeness that lies at the core of parliamentary democracy. The failure of the administrative machinery to check the transgressions reveals a troubling malignancy: the politicization of key institutions in a democratic polity. The impunity enjoyed by the dominant political party is also damaging in another way. It encourages citizens to believe that loyalty to the party in power can even act as a shield against such infringements as taking up the law into one's own hands.