Regaining control in a ramshackle organisation, where discipline is low and control is loose and sporadic, is definitely a challenge
The barbarity of Bogtui, near Rampurhat in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, is not just unacceptable, it is an instance of the use of violence to settle political scores going totally out of control. That is not to argue that the use of controlled and targeted violence is either acceptable or excusable in the competitive politics of electoral democracies.
Yet, violence and murderous attacks are routinely used, especially in West Bengal, against political competitors as a mode of settling scores and signalling their relative positions, and this has unfortunately been the practice for decades.
The winner or defender establishes himself as the reigning local oligarch and political power centre. There is a hierarchy within which these oligarchs and power centres manage to operate.
And then there is the politics of victimhood. The CPI(M), which had ruled the state for 34 years, had played it against the Congress, and the Congress played it against the CPI(M). Mamata Banerjee has played it against both, at different times. The BJP, as the newbie in the state’s politics, mulched it before and after the May 2021 elections. The recent scuffle between the BJP’s Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari and his colleagues and Trinamul Congress legislators in the West Bengal Assembly has become almost routine for almost all state Assemblies and even Parliament for some time. The difference is that it happened in West Bengal and went viral. The BJP is clearly working hard, albeit taking shortcuts, to underline its victim status to highlight the TMC’s practice of using violence to settle political scores.
To disconnect herself from the out-of-control hierarchy of political power centres and local oligarchs engaged in murderous competition, Mamata Banerjee has adroitly shifted her public communications from being dismissive on the one hand and constructing an alternative narrative of conspiracy on the other. She has done so to underline her position as the only power centre, the fountainhead of all political and government authority, fully accountable to the “people” and responsible for delivering justice and compensation to victims. She has made herself the embodiment of the rule of law, reiterated her familial connection with the people, especially women, as the “Didi” and announced that a hotline will be set up for oppressed and fearful people to complain to her directly.
This version of hotline politics is a strategic move. Used effectively on the eve of the 2021 state Assembly elections, the hotline between Didi and the individual aggrieved voter revived the direct link that had got frayed in 2019, resulting in heavy losses for the Trinamul Congress in the Lok Sabha elections and fuelling the BJP’s meteoric rise to challenger status.
Regaining control in a ramshackle organisation, where discipline is low and control is loose and sporadic, is definitely a challenge. Ms Banerjee has been aware of the internal conflicts and has in the aftermath of May 2021 repeatedly warned her party that she will not tolerate activities that damage the TMC’s reputation. Her warnings pre-Bogtui went unheeded, even after she pointedly spoke out during and after the recent statewide municipal elections.
The challenge for Ms Banerjee is to whip the party and her government, especially the police, into a semblance of order, to restore confidence in her leadership. To do that, the chief minister has, grudgingly, welcomed the investigation into the Bogtui incident by the Central Bureau of Investigation even though she had set up a Special Investigation Team led by the top brass of the West Bengal police. By gracefully conceding space to the CBI in Bogtui, Ms Banerjee has sidestepped the snare that Narendra Modi had placed in her way by offering all support from the Centre. For a leader who has consistently opposed the encroachment of the Centre on state matters, especially on law and order and authority over the police, Mamata Banerjee’s overt message of cooperation with the CBI is a tactical move that will give her room to manipulate the narrative after the investigation is over.
As a populist leader in an elected democracy, Mamata Banerjee is fully conscious that her mandate has to be frequently validated though the popular vote. However authoritarian her style may be, and that was on full display at Bogtui when she ordered the arrest of a TMC district leader because voters in Bogtui blamed him for the atrocities, she knows that voter support is essential for her survival and her ambitions to play a role in national politics in 2024 and beyond.
Deplorable as it may be, it is pointless to try and trace the origins of why West Bengal’s politics is more prone to violence than other states. Violence is used to defend local political turf, which means it reinforces the prevailing power equations. Violence is used as a signal of aggressive expansion by the local power centre aiming to enlarge his territory. Violence is a performance designed to deliver multiple messages to locals who interpret and make sense of it in their own ways.
Participation in political violence in West Bengal is part of the rites of initiation and a marker of status, especially for the non-elites in urban and rural areas. The participant then becomes either a local hero, a go-to person for people on the margins trying to access government services and benefits, entry into the local informal economy, get relief, or the local thug, who is best avoided.
There is a social sanction for the use of violence in politics and for settling disputes, even family conflicts.
And then there was Mamata Banerjee, who as a victim of violence against her person, became a symbol of all victims. On her political journey to power in 2011, Ms Banerjee fought back, acquired the status of a hero and the reputation of a street fighter. Her brand image was a fearless leader who fought on the front lines.
Ms Banerjee’s response to the Bogtui killings marks her transition from streetfighter and victim. As chief minister, as a possible aspirant for the prime ministership in 2024, if the unborn alliance of anti-BJP parties becomes a reality, Mamata Banerjee cannot afford to alienate a small pocket of voters in Bogtui because she is aware that voters aggrieved by her party’s local oligarchs and power centres across West Bengal will decipher her response and read meanings in them that may jeopardise the Trinamul Congress’ popularity and her brand as its supreme leader. She needs to establish control, over a politically corrupt administration and a dysfunctional party to position herself as a wholesome alternative to a toxic incumbent.