Inasmuch as the right to life is a fundamental responsibility of the elected government, which is being endangered by the vicious political violence in post-poll West Bengal, it is the entitlement of the government to function without undue oversight of the Centre, backed by its authority, to issue veiled threats to overpower the new regime.
The intimidating game of exerting pressure to discredit the Mamata Banerjee government, elected for a third term with a two-thirds majority by defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is at one level petty tit-for-tat politicking by the Narendra Modi regime. At another level, it is a classic play of how the Centre can use its greater authority to harass a state government, in a pre-emptive strike, on the basis of a bad law and order problem by working overtime to frame it as an imminent breakdown of the Constitutional machinery.
Tracking the chronology of how the narrative of a state on the edge of a “breakdown of constitutional machinery,” a breakdown of law and order and failure of the elected government to manage to restore control and calm, was backed by the Modi regime in a series of acts that confirmed the perception of a state on the verge of breakdown, is instructive. The facts point to the risky if not reckless game of injecting volatility into an already overheated political environment, where violence has killed at least 16 people in one estimate, 25 in another estimate over a week.
Over 72 hours starting May 2, even as ballots were being counted and results announced, the BJP on the one hand and the Union government on the other built up a case that seemed to justify the pre-emptive demand by the central leadership of the BJP to place West Bengal (WB) under President’s Rule, as per Article 356 of the Constitution.
Between the final declaration of results on May 3 and the swearing-in of Mamata Banerjee as Chief Minister on May 5, WB Governor J P Dhankhar tweeted his concern over the rising violence, pointing to a constitutional crisis. Even as the BJP in a rising crescendo of complaints about party workers being killed, forced to flee their homes because the Trinamool Congress (TMC) was indulging in an uncontrolled spree of violence, authenticated the impression of breakdown.
The post-poll violence in WB this time has been unprecedented; a total of 16 or 25 persons by one account have died, of which twelve are from the BJP, eight from the TMC and two from the Samyukta Morcha of the Congress, Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front and the newly-hatched Indian Secular Front. In 2011, when post-poll violence swept WB after the spectacular triumph of Mamata Banerjee in defeating the 34-year-old CPI (M)-led Left Front regime, the death count in the first few weeks had been 13.
It is not simply that there is evidence of TMC violence against the BJP. The death count points to retaliation by the BJP against the TMC as well. This brings the level of violence and tension to another level.
Contributing to the volatile situation was a set of inflammatory inferences designed to raise tension to an even higher pitch. On a two-day visit on May 3 and 4, to meet the violence-afflicted people, BJP President J P Nadda compared the current conflict with the worst-ever violence in WB in 1946 – the great Calcutta Killings, when Muslims and Hindus clashed and an estimated 4,000 were killed and over one lakh made homeless. In tweets that were later verified and found to be fake news, BJP leader and defeated candidate Swapan Dasgupta spread a story of women being gang-raped and molested in Nanoor in Birbhum that then was locally circulated as Hindu women being violated by Muslim men.
Also read: The pan India climax to BJP’s Bengal story
Minutes after swearing her in, Governor Dhankhar said that the “first priority is we must bring an end to this senseless violence, horrendous violence that has affected society at large. Post-poll violence if it is retributive is antithetical to democracy. I have every hope that the Chief Minister on an urgent basis will take all steps to restore the rule of law”.
Hours after the swearing-in Prime Minister Modi called the Governor to inquire about the law and order situation. The four-member team from the Home Ministry was announced on the evening of May 5 and the two-day investigation visit was scheduled from May 6. It points to how the BJP hopes it can use the Modi regime at the Centre to intimidate Banerjee and threaten the survival of the new WB government.
It is not surprising that the BJP asked for President’s Rule, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court against the “targeted progrom,” and then complained after the Union home ministry sent a special investigation team that it was not properly briefed. The game of discrediting the Mamata Banerjee government because of its failure to control political violence was an important element in the BJP’s campaign to win in WB. The state party leadership maintained that over a 100 BJP workers had been killed in the state in recent years.
Backed by a significant section of the media that lapped up the story of WB’s violence and the BJP as the antidote that would restore law and order and bring peace back to the state, the continuing saga of how violence is posing a “drifting” away from “constitutional prescriptions” seem to have become the singular responsibility of Governor Dhankhar.
In a tweet posted on May 8, after the killings have halted and number of clashes substantially declined, the Governor iterates “the state is facing worst post-election violence where people are being made to pay with their lives and freedom only for having exercised their right to vote in democracy and state apparatus has virtually abandoned lawful obligations.”
In what seems like adding to a diary recording the failures of the Mamata Banerjee government, the Governor complained “No input to the constitutional head makes mockery of constitution and rule of law,” about a report that the Chief Secretary did not send to him on time.
The exclusion of all other realities – a rising number of coronavirus infections, more deaths, hospitals running out of vaccines, shortages of life-saving oxygen, the fear and the danger stalking the state, and the catastrophic situation nationwide – from the Governor’s priority as well as the state BJP’s concerns points to an agenda that is being pursued to unsettle the new government and keep political tensions on the boil.
One other reality that the BJP desperately wants to shield from public attention is the turmoil within the party, where state leaders and workers are so angry that they have effectively told the central leaders camping in Kolkata to leave. The outburst from former Governor of Tripura and Manipur, Tathagata Roy questioning the distribution of tickets and blaming “KDSA” and acronym for Kailash Vijayvargia, Dilip Ghosh, Shiv Prakash and Arvind Menon” for the rout is the tip of the iceberg. There is speculation of old-time BJP leaders and workers quitting the party and of new timers from the TMC returning to the party.
That the BJP is prepared to prioritise political violence over people’s very real problems with the shortages that would save them in this second pandemic surge underscores its single-minded pursuit of a single goal – unsettle Mamata Banerjee by any means. A Mamata Banerjee in power in WB over the next five years is a political challenge that the BJP wants to eliminate at minimal political cost and with maximum ease. Reiterating the breakdown of law and order and constitutional prescriptions is the easy way to legitimise an ouster via Article 356 and bring WB under President’s Rule. The risk of doing so may be more expensive than the BJP can afford.
Shikha Mukerjee is a political commentator for print, digital and television. She was political editor of The Times of India in Kolkata.
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