An election in Delhi is quite a drab and lifeless affair. It seems to be more so in this sprawling sub-city where I live. Even the warmth – let alone the fury – of electioneering was hardly felt here. Except for a few, very few, posters of the main warring sides and one small procession of a handful of people without any party colour exhorting citizens to come out and vote there was no sign at all that a momentous general election was only a few days away!
A few days prior to the polling day, an election official delivered at every house slips bearing the voter’s photograph and indicating the location of the polling station. Ours was a nearby school, which had several booths set up within its premises. A policeman stood guard outside each booth.
Before entering the school, my Bengali instinct made me look around for political party workers, curious onlookers or at least some mischievous bands of urchins roaming outside the polling station. To my disappointment there was none. There was no presence of any political party workers, flags or festoons as are a common spectacle in West Bengal.
Far from being a “festival” the scene outside the polling station was reminiscent of the atmosphere just before the start of some competitive examination at the UPSC hall. Once inside, we stood quietly in short queues outside our designated booth, waiting for our turn to vote. The polling process was so fast that almost before I knew it, the machine beeped and I was through!
A former colleague and resident of the same housing complex as mine winked at me while coming out after pressing his button of choice, and said with a smile, “see, this is how polling is done; you Bengalis are mischief-makers.” He was of course joking, but knowing as I did the reason for his talking about Bengal I was not amused .
In fact, questions such as “Dada, what’s happening in Bengal?’ have been a common refrain among well-meaning friends and acquaintances ever since polling began, and every single TV channel started reporting poll-related violence in Bengal and flashing gory details of people being maimed or killed, crude bombs being thrown or voters being stopped from going to the polling stations.
The main political rivals spewing venom in rally after rally exhorting the people to vote for their parties made us sick and tired. Egged on by them, murderous mobs of different hues have been attacking voters, openly casting votes for others, heckling candidates or even destroying voting machines. As these scenes were compared with far more placid pictures emerging from other states, it was natural for the viewers to ask for reasons. And who those question be put to, but the hapless Bong?
Elections are being held all over the country. Emotions are running high and the contest is bitter almost everywhere. There indeed have been some violence too. But the scale and magnitude of violence that we are witnessing in West Bengal have no parallel.
It is clear to political observers as to why winning a few seats from Bengal is of so much importance for those who aspire to rule India over the next five years. Still, it is unthinkable that Bengal’s law and order machinery cannot ensure a more peaceful election. It surely can. Unfortunately, it lacks the political backing to enforce the law and hence prefer to remain inactive.
During the first six phases of polling, the presence of the so-called central forces made no great difference. The reason is not far to seek. For one, the Presiding Officers, in the face of threats to their lives, dared not invoke the considerable powers available to them to intervene if the poll process was vitiated. For another, the forces guarded the polling booths as much as they could, but the real action was in the localities where the voters would come from. And there, with the state police turning a blind eye, the musclemen stopped voters if there was an iota of doubt about which button they were going to press.
Although born and brought up in Kolkata, my job kept me out of that gem of a city (at least it was so when I left for Delhi in 1978) for nearly four decades . All this while, whenever the occasion arose, I had no difficulty in successfully defending my home State and the Bengali way of life because, with all their faults, the average Bengali (including those in active politics) was a bhadralok or gentlemen.
For the first time I find that I have no weapon in my arsenal with which to defend the mindless political violence in my state. Even more difficult it is to digest the language being used by the Chief Minister of West Bengal when she attacks her chief rival in these elections – Prime Minister Modi, who also is not particularly known for restraint so far as verbal onslaught on his rivals is concerned.
With all their faults, I do not recall either Jyoti Basu or Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, or any other leader of the yore ever using such words, bordering on vulgarity, in their speeches. The Bengali language, known for its “sweetness”, has been thoroughly debased by the present day political leaders of the state.
The violence that took place during a road-show by the BJP President in Kolkata was perhaps the last straw on the camel’s back, and even the Election Commission, otherwise so famously inactive, was jolted out of its siesta to take some unprecedented, but inexplicable action.
The hullabaloo over the breaking of a statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and the crocodile tears being shed over the so-called “assault on Bengali pride” are signs of nothing but political bankruptcy of Bengal’s politicians, especially of those belonging to the two main rival parties.
The removal of the Home Secretary of the State and shunting off of one of its top police officers to Delhi, ostensibly for their interference in the electoral process, have not only completely eroded the credibility of the State administration but has raised serious doubts about the capability – even sincerity – of the Election Commission in ensuring that the citizens can exercise their right to vote without intimidation or interference from any quarter.
Once again, our friends from outside the state ask a very pertinent question, “why did this become necessary in West Bengal?” To respond would be to state the obvious. Unfortunately, the state’s leadership in their ostrich-like self-deception can never accept that they alone are responsible for all this.
I only hope that the last phase of the election today passes off in peace, and that for some time at least those of us who live outside the state would be saved from unflattering comments on electoral violence in West Bengal.