Regular exposure to wanton destruction of human lives, brought to our doorsteps through the print and electronic media, has somewhat numbed our senses. And yet, news of so many deaths in rural Bengal before and during the panchayat election did cause severe consternation to all of us, if away from the scene of violence.
Panchayat elections have been bloody affairs in the past as well; but this time, the extent of mayhem seems unprecedented. As political parties trade charges and counter-charges, and panellists in television debates lament the inefficiency of the Election Commission, one gets dismayed by the abysmal state of politics in Bengal that is devoid of all civilizational norms and the liberal, democratic ethos.
The EC failed to ensure unhindered filing of nominations by the Opposition and subsequently free and fair elections. The police failed to prevent widespread violence. To that can be added the evil design of the political dispensation hell -bent on capturing power through accentuation of the communal divide and physical annihilation of the opponent.
Bengalis are generally perceived throughout India as a culturally inclined, politically conscious community, at best argumentative and loquacious, a segment that is not prone to use muscle-power. Politics in Bengal today is increasingly becoming savage and barbaric. This unfortunate trend of politics is baffling and a blot on the state’s democratic credentials.
Some would ascribe the genesis of such violence to the long tradition of Communist movement, in particular the Naxalite movement which had ideologically justified the elimination of the political enemy. The state had witnessed political violence during Left Front rule, but it was largely directed towards acquiring authoritarian control over different segments of the socio-political construct.
Politics in Bengal has been transformed and the present regime, which came to power promising an alternative narrative of development and peace, has also unleashed violence, even preventing the Opposition from exercising its right to participate in the political process which forms the edifice of democracy.
The noted political thinker, Chantal Mouffe, had developed the concept of agonism in place of antagonism to create political space in a democracy, in which the people could co-exist with their political opponents even if they failed to reach a consensus on political issues.
She said, ‘The aim of a pluralist democracy is to provide the institutions that will allow them to take an agonistic form, in which opponents will treat each other not as enemies to be destroyed, but as adversaries who will fight for the victory of their position while recognising the right of their opponents to fight for theirs.
An agonistic democracy requires the availability of a choice between real alternatives.’ But, she argued, ‘when there is lack of democratic political struggles…the opponent cannot be perceived as an adversary to contend with, but only as an enemy to be destroyed’.
Thus, resort to physical violence and extermination or even verbal abuse is actually a result of perpetual depoliticisation, which is again a by-product of the lack of democratic political struggles in a given political context. If the political supremo of Bengal is confident of her developmental agenda, she should not have displayed such nervousness which prompted her party cadres to physically prevent members of the Opposition from filing nominations.
The entire country is gradually getting trapped in the grip of an ultra-nationalist, majoritarian agenda. Mamata Banerjee is clueless about how to effectively dispel the notion of a leader who is trying to appease the Muslims to capture the votes of a community that constitutes nearly 30 per cent of Bengal’s population.
The forceful attempt to reinforce the party’s hegemony in rural Bengal, through violent extermination of opponents was destined to backfire. Violence begets violence and hence the perpetrators have become victims as well.
The socio-economic profile of the victims is distressing. The dead and the wounded are actually the poorest of the poor, mere pawns in the hands of their political masters. Prominent social scientist Partha Chatterjee’s binaries of civil society, a space of modernization as against political society, driven by survival needs in a post-colonial democracy, seems manifest in the context of the Panchayat polls.
Bengal seems to resemble the Hobbsean state of nature, a state of war of all against all, where men’s lives are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, where people who have lived side by side for ages are now each other’s worst enemies.
Gaining control of the panchayats is crucial for the parties as that ensures access to power and money. Thanks to various projects like the World Bank-funded ISGP (Institutional Strengthening of Gram Panchayats), the Central Government funded Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Comprehensive Area Development Project of the West Bengal government and so on, Panchayati raj institutions constitute the fountain-heads of wealth and resources and hence areas of intense contestation.
The desperation and indifference of those perpetrating violence in rural areas, as caught on camera, are also indicative of a deep-rooted social malaise in rural Bengal. It indicates disregard for the rule of law, absence of fear of punishment, and absence of fear about one’s own well-being.
Despite tall claims of the Trinamul government about the benign outcome of the development intiatives, one gets the impression of people living a life of depravity and sheer hopelessness. There is little or no serious engagement in work, education and other meaningful, rewarding pursuits.
Political parties, supposedly the arbiters of political culture, are expected to spread the values of democracy and respect for the rule of law, of treating political opponents with due respect and dignity, and ensuring the emergence of what Mouffe calls an agnostic political order, marked by intense political competition, but within the confines of the democratic order.
In Bengal, the parties have miserably failed to ensure that.. Even partyless elections to local bodies seem a distant reality as rural Bengal has transformed partisan politics into a new kind of identity politics, whereby supporters of one party nurture intense hatred towards those of others.
Hannah Arendt, for whom political power is equivalent to legitimate authority of ruling a populace, earned through legitimate means and a potent weapon of transforming their lives for the better, once took a dig at Mao Zedong when she observed that out of the barrel of the gun flows a violent command capable of forcing obedience, but not power to change and transform. In Bengal, we are waiting for that power, unblemished by blood marks, to emerge and bring about that much needed paribartan.
The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Women’s Christian College, Kolkata