Battle for political supremacy in West Bengal has long been a factor of democracy as much as “mastanocracy": when the state turns mastan. Intoxicated not with spirituality, as with the Hindustani root word, but with violence and power as a way of life and livelihood.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah’s speech in Malda on 22 January presaged a continuation of that unlovely tradition. It’s important to take note, as the ratcheting up of rhetoric for imminent Lok Sabha elections this summer will snowball into a confrontation for Bengal’s assembly in early 2021 into a Trinamool Congress (TMC) versus BJP shoot-out.

Shah flagged emotional touchpoints among the state’s Hindu population, alluding to how cows wouldn’t be smuggled into Bangladesh from West Bengal were the BJP to come to power. How Hindu refugees would receive citizenship. Cross-border infiltration of Bangladeshis would stop. Payoffs to political-business syndicates would end. And so on.

This talk is cheap. To make a dent, let alone win, Shah and his party know the BJP will need to appropriate not just the propaganda platform, but also the political infrastructure. The BJP and its ultra-right allies have been preparing the ground. The ruling TMC won’t yield ground without a fight. In Bengal that can literally mean: fighting.

By most accounts, “mastanocracy" became set in stone during the second United Front government, a coalition of major and minor left-wing parties between February 1969 and July 1970. (That was also the time the political-action verb, gherao, took life.) Political masters began to use goons (mastans) as a means towards an end. From then till 1972, which included a short-lived Congress government and President’s rule, it was as if the bhadralok (literally, the gentle folk) had finally come of age as the Borgias.

Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, leader Jyoti Basu cut his leadership teeth during that period of scrum, which also included as a violent sideshow the burgeoning Naxalbari movement. Congress leaders like Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi and Somen Mitra also came from the scrum along with proven leaders like Subrato Mukherjee. Mukherjee once told the scholar Atul Kohli that he played “an important role in the Youth Congress since 1969" when there was “tremendous violence throughout the state"; and Congress took on left and ultra-left forces in a similar fashion. Mastans matured as political factors during the Congress rule of 1972-77.

The chronicler Sajal Basu wrote colourfully of it in one of his studies on the violence of those years: “Political dependence on these rowdy cadres has precipitated a situation of Mastanocracy." The mastan moved steadily from pawn to power broker in what he termed the chessboard of politics.

Some say “mastanocracy" truly evolved during the reign of Jyoti Basu at the head of a CPM-led Left Front coalition that began in June 1977. He demitted office in November 2000, leaving behind a de-industrialized, economically chaotic wasteland that pushed several generations of the state’s vast professional talent pool to seek work and life elsewhere. However, he oversaw a massive land reform exercise, an act that earned his party—and his successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee—a political base that altogether lasted more than three decades.

That creaky applecart was upset by Mamata Banerjee-led TMC. A year before the TMC stormed to power by winning assembly elections in 2011, I had written in this column that the party would be as brutal in maintaining a hold as the Communists had been since 1977. Alongside leveraging incumbency, the TMC diligently hijacked the CPM’s processes and grassroots base.

In 2016, TMC won West Bengal by a landslide, with the Left-opposition in disarray. The BJP’s play was still mild. The rhetoric and aggressive displays by Hindu grassroots organizations that typically prepare the ground for political upsurge was only just visible.

These activities became more visible as 2017 came around. Local leaders began to spew extremist talk—as media has extensively reported. In March 2018, I recorded an ultra-right rally in Chandannagar, a former French colony upriver from Kolkata. A large and boisterous Ram Navami procession—rare in Bengal—was choreographed with religious and ultra-nationalist slogans in Hindi—also rare in Bengal—with several hundred sword- and machete-wielding Bengali youngsters. Such structured mood is no longer rare. Just add “mastanocracy".

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights.

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