KOLKATA: The battle for West Bengal has got progressively bloodier as the polling exercise rolls into the final phase of the seven-stage general elections.
The last phase, which takes place on Sunday, will focus largely on the urban areas of Kolkata and some of its surrounding districts, comprising nine Parliamentary constituencies.
Given the demographic and population mix of these areas, the two principal sides—Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Trinamool Congress (TMC)—have dialled up the hostility and violence. The intensity even forced the Election Commission to stop campaigning nearly 20 hours before schedule.
In the midst of all the posturing and verbal intimidation, both parties seem to have ignored students who are a key constituency and will be voting in this election. It is important because these students are politically alert and are, therefore, key stakeholders in the state’s economic, social and political development. In the stream of accusations and counter-accusations, there is no discussion of economic development or other critical issues that seem to affect the future prospects of these students.
In discussions with two different groups of students of six each from Jadavpur University, it became very clear that the conflict seems to be ignoring them as key stakeholders and their concerns. They feel alienated and excluded from the dominant political discourse. The students are in various stages of academic progression (from under-graduates to PhD students to post-doctoral scholars) and studying different subjects (history, political science, literature, economics).
Two concerns stand out. One, the democratic space for debate and dissent is shrinking, both in Bengal as well as in India. Students unanimously felt that all governments—both centre and state—were intruding into the citizen’s space for free speech and debate, threatening retribution when different ideas are expressed. This, they felt, inflicts collateral damage to India’s various democratic attributes, and eventually impinges on even the nation’s secular fabric.
The second point, made more emphatically, was the lack of economic development and employment generation; this gap, they felt, was being masked through muscular patriotism. Many youngsters felt deeply anxious about the economy and lack of jobs; the fact that none of the political parties was addressing this and the campaign narrative had morphed into sordid accusations and counter-accusations only added to their unease.
There were other concerns expressed about the economy—mindless privatization to only meet the fiscal deficit target, continuing interference with autonomous institutions (such as the Reserve Bank of India) which could hinder the efficient functioning of the economy, unmet promises of economic development, among others.
The students are perhaps not unjustified about the emerging political narrative from both BJP and TMC ignoring ground realities. Two recent incidents provide a glimpse into the mindless power struggle.
In the first, the Kolkata police arrested Priyanka Sharma, a BJP supporter, for circulating a meme on West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, which included a morphed photograph of the leader. The Supreme Court ordered that Sharma be set free, but she was directed to apologize on her release for sharing the morphed picture.
This is the second or third incident since TMC has come to power that the thin-skinned Kolkata police has incarcerated citizens for indulging in harmless caricature.
In another incident, BJP workers accompanying Amit Shah’s procession in Kolkata got into a pitched battle with TMC supporters. Floats in the procession were apparently bedecked with Hanuman icons, reverberating with chants of “Jai Shri Ram" and populated with supporters brought in from other states.
The ensuing scuffle moved into a nearby college where a bust of scholar and social reformer Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay—honoured with the title “Vidyasagar"—was smashed, allegedly by BJP workers.
Wikipedia describes Vidyasagar as a polymath; his text book on Bengali alphabets—Borno Porichoy—is every Bengali child’s first step towards literacy and knowledge. Vidyasagar is an important Bengali icon and, therefore, the damage to his bust plays out at different levels.
The two incidents broadly highlight problems of Indian politics, played out with some minor modifications in Kolkata. The morphed photograph incident, leading to arrest for five days, clearly underlines the trend of authoritarianism that now pervades all political parties, with low tolerance for either humour or criticism of the leader. Mamata Banerjee’s minders do not let her talk to the media; she is promoted like a consumer brand only on certain television channels.
The second incident illustrates BJP’s brand of majoritarian politics which seeks to impose a hegemonistic version of Hindu culture and iconography to an area which has practised its Hinduism differently for centuries, with markedly different rituals and customs. And, if the BJP workers from outside the state did indeed indulge in the vandalism, it reinforces the impression of BJP as an alien political party attempting to superimpose its alien culture.
BJP’s strategy is transparent: It seeks to consolidate the non-Bengali and fence-sitting, middle-class Bengali vote. There is a growing perception within the BJP that some middle-class Bengali households might be tempted to switch their votes to the saffron party, lured by a monochromatic version of Hinduism or repulsed by Mamata Banerjee’s overt secular outreach. The TMC, on the other hand, sees the BJP campaign design and pitch as an outright assault on the Bengali identity and values. And so, the battle is no longer restricted to winning Parliamentary seats: it is about who has the right to represent Bengal and Bengali values. But far away from this contest for Bengali pride, there are many citizens who want the conflict to end and governance to begin.
With all parties pushing students to the margins, it is not surprising that Vidyasagar’s bust gets trashed. Kolkata—and Bengal—certainly deserve better.
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