Pre-poll, poll and post-poll violence has become a perennial feature of election in West Bengal. Perhaps Panchayat election shows some of the ugliest phases of such a feature. In 2013 there was occupancy instead of election in many places (see my blog on this issue here) and this year with about 26% of uncontested sits and numerous instances of poll-violence (only a fraction of which is covered by media) many would consider Panchayat election to be of complete farce. What does it signify? Does it mean people in West Bengal suddenly has become violent? Does it mean there is a complete absence of democratic principles in villages of West Bengal? In order to have some understanding of possible reasons there is a need to look at different stakeholders in West Bengal in recent past.
Stakeholder 1: People without protections
Welcome to one of the lowest paid public service structure of the country. I might sound like a person with strong sense of class, but there is a strong impact of class and class position show off in West Bengal and people behave accordingly. Remember no matter how long West Bengal experienced Communist Party rule, the state is still conspicuously follow class based mobilisation of people and processes. The public servants lagging behind in their pay structure, repeated unattended grievances are already demotivated. Such a demotivation is rooted in multiple fields in their everyday life and practices. They are not in a position to implement the administrative machinery because the support structure doesn't exist. Panchayat election is one of the most prominent examples to such a contention. In case of an emergency the entire machinery collapses. Presiding Officer (PO) with Magistrate power fails to access the Sector Officer. With a couple of equally demotivated force the PO usually has no choice than to let go.
Stakeholder 2: People who know stakeholder 1 is unprotected
Remember good old days when a 'public servant on duty' embodied a power-in-itself. One couldn't even think of doing anything violent against them. The machinery used to be so massive that the public sphere always remain apprehensive about the 'sarkar maa-e-baap.' This awe towards the public institutions has changed over past few decades especially during the last few years of Left Front and then with the new rule of Trinamool Congress. The reasons are complex and multilayered but of course linked to a) the political deep probe within the administration where the administrative structure has lost its capacity to function as an independent mechanism and b) rile of leaders extending support towards the 'mob justice' or sometimes even 'media trial.' This is a distinctive mode of public transaction where people can get away with beating up doctors, professors and police.
The very nature of violent mode of public transaction instead of following the rules of the game and subsequent administrative inaction have resulted in a peculiar consciousness of public sphere which sees public service employees are there to serve them like their slaves. If they fail to deliver what in the opinion of the public sphere desirable the public sphere can bet them up, vandalize and get away with it smoothly.
Stakeholder 3: The Gundas and Dadas and their assistants
Yes, its a masculine sphere of the world of politics and dependence of people on the politics. If you are an individual staying in West Bengal you must have encountered people with 'attitude.' Let me explain what I mean when I use the word attitude.
you might have encountered people
a) who chats indefinitely on a road by blocking it. When you find it difficult to navigate you honk but they take a lot of time let you pass through as if the road is their private property - yes they are the one.
b) who are always there in any occassion organised by some committee or club under a broad head 'sarbojanin' - everybody's. They have their boys who work for them to collect subscription, arrange for feast and so on.
c) you want to build a home, you are supposed to buy materials from them.
d) you want to buy or sell a property you have to do it through them.
e) you want to beat up some or the like they are available.
yes, they are everywhere. The party machinery tends depend on this every growing section of young and not-so-young gang of boys. They are not only unemployed but are unemployable. Moreover, an increasing number of them doesn't mind being not employed. Smartphone clad, Gio internet packed, carefree section of the boys are the assets to political parties and are known as taja chhele (fresh and active boy), bachha chhele (innocent childres), etc.
Election, party and stakeholders interplay:
What happened in 2018 Panchayat election is a classic case of power uncertainty and an interface of different stakeholders. While the stakeholders clearly know each other, often encounter each other even in few cases same person plays different roles of the tree apparently distinctive stakeholders, I guess the violence was inevitable. Such violence in Panchayat election doesn't mean there is an absence of democracy, nor does it mean Bengalis have suddenly become violent. It indicates two things.
first, there is a good number of people made dependent on party. Their livelihood depends on continuation of political change. It was there during the Left regime but TMC has consolidated it even further.
second, the helplessness of the administrative mechanism is surfaced, practiced and become part of people's everyday. Those who have had practice sessions in beating up doctors, professors and police have their final examinations in the election days. We know they will give their best shot during an election.
Hence, there is no point in being cynical and state that democracy is dead. It isn't. The entire time dimension is in a continuation of dialectics. Antethesis is under construction and it is well watered in every corner of the state of West Bengal. Today its Bharatiya Janata Party tomorrow it will be some other party.
Image courtesy: http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-west-bengal-panchayat-poll-zee-exclusive-stash-of-bombs-found-behind-tmc-strongman-arabul-s-house-2614301