The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), had developed the fine craft of “scientific rigging". The Trinamool Congress has made it more blatant and violent.

The national media does not seem to have paid enough attention to the way the civic polls were conducted on Saturday, 18 April, in Kolkata. Of course, there were events of greater national importance to report: Hafeez Sayed, trouble in Kashmir, the first public appearance of Rahul Gandhi. But the blatant use of government power, violence and large-scale booth management and rigging that marked the Kolkata elections should be cause for alarm for any Indian.

It was State abuse of power at its most venal, and on show in public, with no attempt at stealth.

In her four years in power, Mamata Banerjee has defanged the Kolkata police. Many honest senior officers have been shunted to peripheral posts that have nothing to do with law and order. The Kolkata police now reports to the Trinamool Congress cadre.

The Trinamool Congress clearly learnt this strategy from the CPI(M), which ran West Bengal for 34 years, but has taken the implementation of the strategy to newer heights.

So, throughout Kolkata on Saturday, even though a record number of 38,000 policemen were deployed to guard against poll violence and malpractices, the police did nothing as Trinamool thugs roamed freely, beat up supporters of rival parties, scared off voters and hung party signs right next to polling booths (a clear violation of election norms), according to The Telegraph newspaper. In many polling booths, according to the newspaper, policemen did not even check voter ID cards while letting people into the booths. It was Trinamool all the way.

Some of the traditional “poll management" techniques that have been used in West Bengal—and all developed by the sharp comrades of the CPI(M)—are the following:

•A day or two before the elections, intimidate people who may vote for rival parties: a simple warning—don’t go out to vote, or else…

•When voting begins, threaten the booth officers of rival parties with violence unless they sit quietly, without protest, and watch the proceedings, or decamp altogether.

•Throw a few crude bombs a little distance away from a few polling booths where you know your party doesn’t have a chance. The average citizen will get scared and go back home without voting.

•Jam the voting queues with your own cadre and make the queue move at a snail’s pace, so that the common voter at the back of the queue, after some time, just gets exasperated and goes home.

After all this is done, the majority of voters still left are all yours, and you anyway have the chance to cast large numbers of fake votes, since you have already made it clear to the polling officer that he will face dire consequences if he utters a squeak. In West Bengal, in the CPI(M) days, this used to be known as “scientific rigging". No one got hurt (usually), and it worked.

Trinamool has now added violence to the mix. During the municipal elections, bullets were fired, iron rods were used, rocks were thrown, rival party offices were ransacked, according to The Telegraph. A sub-inspector of the Kolkata got shot and hospitalized, according to news reports.

The fact is that the thugs who helped the CPI(M) rule the state with an iron fist for three decades saw which way the electoral wind was blowing a few years ago and shifted en masse to Trinamool. The key difference is that down to the middle management level, CPI(M) was a fairly disciplined party. Though the thugs indulged in every sort of criminal activity, including attacking and often killing members of rival parties (ironically, usually belonging to Trinamool), some method was imposed on the madness. Clear directions came from the top, as far as possible, and stepping too far beyond the line was frowned upon.

This is not so with Trinamool. An example. It was West Bengal’s worst-kept secret that during the CPI(M) regime, one couldn’t build a house beyond a certain size anywhere in the state without paying a kickback to the cadre—so many bags of cement, so many of their candidates to be employed on the site, and so on. That system survives, but with a twist.

The owner of a mid-sized construction firm told me some months ago that when the CPI(M) was in power, he more or less knew what the cadre’s demands would be and could factor those into his cost. He also knew, depending on the locality, who to deal with. In case of dispute, both parties could approach the local party office, whose boss would act as arbiter. There was a sort of “rate card", he told me.

With the Trinamool, there is neither a rate card, nor does he know who to deal with. Multiple hooligans approach him, claiming to be the local Trinamool leader, demanding arbitrary sums, and there is no hope of any redress. Today, the thugs run the party, and not the other way round, as was the case with the CPI(M). As a result, there is huge business uncertainty, bordering on chaos. Two groups of Trinamool goons getting into fights with each other is not such a rare occurrence.

To some extent, the same scenario played out in the state during last year’s Lok Sabha elections. There were numerous allegations of reckless rigging, with evidence including video footage from inside polling booths (in some cases, the CCTVs were even turned off by Trinamool ruffians) but no action was taken. The Kolkata municipal elections have taken election malpractices in the state a step further. They are a signal what the state elections, due next year, could be like. The Election Commission has a tough task on its hands.

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