By Ashis Biswas
With the Kolkata city civic elections scheduled on next Sunday, citizens’ opinions remain divided over the possibility of reasonably free and fair polling on December 19. Trinamool Congress (TMC) General Secretary and MP Abhishek Banerjee has set conversational mills rolling with a public appeal to party cadre to ensure fair elections. There must be no intimidation of voters, foul play or any kind of pressures applied on anyone, he said. Offenders would be sternly dealt with, he warned.
Given the record of the TMC as a party that habitually disallows any opposition campaigning whether for the Panchayat or the Lok Sabha polls, Mr. Banerjee’s appeal is not surprising. There are good reasons for the TMC leaders to stand up as model champions for fair play at this juncture.
Observers believe the TMC’s call for fair elections comes as a piece of its new elaborate makeover, to change its present image of a street smart but somewhat raucous, one-state party. In its morphing from the TMC to the new AITC (All India Trinamool Congress) setting a scorching pace from Tripura to Goa, it is imperative that its leaders are seen to radiate a new, heightened political awareness. .
At the local level of civic politics too, such an appeal is bound to have some effect on urban fence/sitters, doubters and the educated middle class. Given the present alignment of forces, there is little doubt that the weakened opposition will be no match for the resurgent TMC so soon after its massive Assembly election victory.
Not everyone agrees. One analyst refers to recent meetings within the TMC where second rank leaders, Mr Madan Mitra and Mr Anubrata Mondal among them, reportedly insisted on avoiding kind of the strong arm tactics the party adopted in the 2018 Panchayat elections. (Ironically, neither is exactly renowned in Bengal for his adherence to fair practices in local politics). Their reasoning : the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) could win 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats with a 40%+ share of votes in 2019 largely because many people in rural Bengal could not vote in the Panchayat elections, thanks to the TMC’s relentless terror campaign ! In 34% of the Panchayat seats, the TMC had won unopposed in 2018 which proved a major political embarrassment later.
As a recent analyst writes, parties can win an election or two by widespread rigging. But they have to pay a major political price sooner or later. If the TNC leaders have understood this, so much the better for them, he argues.
Left parties and Congress are not impressed by the TMC’s ‘gentlemanly’ postures. A state Congress leader said Banerjee’s appeal was only an admission that earlier elections held during the TMC’s decade-long tenure were neither free nor fair. CPI(M) leader Mr, Sujan Chakravarty found it ironic as well as unacceptable that Banerjee , elected from Diamond Harbour LS seat in 2019, had personally headed the most heinous terror campaign that prevented large numbers of local voters from casting their votes!
The most prevalent view among city-based voters is that going by experience, the possibility of violence occurring remained as strong as ever. It had become a trend for ruling parties in Bengal, whether or the Left or non Left variety, to resort to strong arm tactics on polling day and run systematic intimidation drives against suspected non supporters/opponents, before it. This remained true no matter what elections were held — even students’ Union polling in colleges these days were invariably marred by violence.
Usually, a series of carefully orchestrated incidents, such as a bomb explosion near a booth, or a sudden attack on an opposition party office/offices in some areas during the early phase of the polling, would occur. There would be minor injuries among opposition party members/activists, but the majority of the voters would be scared. Most would stay away especially during the later hours of polling and some would not come out to vote at all, as news of the disturbances spread.
The police on duty had an indirect role. Despite being present in substantial numbers in areas vulnerable to violence, the men in uniform hardly ever intervened physically even while rival groups of political supporters clashed or hurled bombs. As one recent article says, they invariably went into action, if at all, only when TV channel staff were on the scene recording what was happening, or other newsmen turned up in the affected area! Even then, the police would rarely question or approach known local instigators who controlled / commanded a large number of local activists, belonging mostly to the ruling party of the day.
Major violence in the civic polls was seen in recent times during the mid eighties when large number of armed activists, allegedly pro CPI(M) men terrorised and prevented from voting large numbers of people in Beliaghata in East Kolkata and adjacent areas. This is not to suggest that when it came to the adoption of strong arm tactics, the role of the Congress and non Left parties was much better. The Assembly elections of 1972 which ended with a massive Congress victory were dominated by mass rigging on a scale never seen since. The irony was that coming so soon after the liberation of Bangladesh, the elections would have been won by the Mrs Indira Gandhi-led Congress in any case.
Similarly, no one had expected the TMC to fare badly in the 2018 Panchayat polls. Yet it carried out its pre-poll terror campaign.
For most average voters, Mr Banerjee’s appeal for fair play would come as a small mercy, in present circumstances. (IPA Service)