The late March violence in Birbhum district’s Bogtui village, in which at least eight people huddled in a room were charred to death, followed the same pattern as other incidents of violence seen in West Bengal over the past few years under the Mamata Banerjee government. It started with the murder of a Trinamool Congress member — deputy gram pradhan Bhadu Sheikh — and ended with attacks on one set of party supporters by another group which alleged them of killing Sheikh in a bomb attack.
After successive defeats in panchayat, Lok Sabha, assembly and municipal elections, the opposition parties in West Bengal have become so weak and demoralised that they don’t put up any meaningful resistance to the TMC. But the space thus created has been filled by the TMC itself. Now, it’s the intra-party clashes among the various factions of the TMC that make news.
The question then is, why are TMC members involved in violence against each other when their party continued its winning streak to register a massive victory in the 2021 assembly election and then in the 2022 municipal election?
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West Bengal’s political hegemony
To understand the nature of this intra-TMC violence, one needs to look at the structure of the political hegemony that has been established over the last decade in West Bengal. The state’s economy is not vibrant enough to generate new employment on a regular basis and the government’s major initiatives have involved offering doles to the people. As such, there is bound to be a growing dependence on these doles.
It has been a practice of the ruling party (beginning with the Left Front’s era) to use the state’s development fund to create a patron-client relationship with the people. The pattern was to deny the benefit of the development fund to the people belonging to the Opposition parties and reward those who switched sides. That template still exists, with only one difference. In the current TMC era, there is virtually no opposition. And so, the opposition is born within the ruling party.
Once the hegemony was established in the state, the district satraps were quick to project themselves as supremos. In other words, all the panchayats and local municipalities were brought under their control and they started to exercise their power to have their say on how much fund would be allocated where and who were to be the beneficiaries, etc. On an average, each gram panchayat gets Rs 1.5 crore+ untied fund and Rs 2 crore tied fund per year. On top of this, they generate another Rs 5-7 lakh from their own resources. With absolute control over the three-tier panchayat system, the ruling party’s satraps and their close associates can easily control and influence the local people by employing the carrot and stick policy.
The control isn’t just limited to management of funds. Any transaction of land, any construction on those lands, all illegal economic activities like unregistered local transport business, illegal mining of coal, sand from riverbed, smuggling of cows and many others are allowed to continue if, and only, if the stakeholders give their levies to the party top brass. To be able to extract “rent or tax” from these legal and illegal activities in the districts, the party must have hegemonic power there. But sometimes there is a problem.
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Fight for control over panchayats
Anubrata Mondal, TMC’s Birbhum president, is a powerful leader who is now under the CBI scanner for his alleged involvement in cow smuggling. But Mondal’s clout began to diminish as Rampurhat MLA and state minister Ashis Banerjee started acting independently. In Birbhum district, Rampurhat is near the stone quarries and crusher industry. Also, the prospect of a huge coalfield to be opened and run by the state government at nearby Deucha Pachami coal block has raised the political class’ expectations of more “revenue”. On top of that, illegal coal mining has been a traditional economic activity there.
Similar trends are visible in Asansol-Raniganj industrial belt where illegal mining of coal and sand have given rise to an internecine warfare. So, stakes are really high as to who would get to control all these ‘businesses’ in their respective areas. The district leaders face stiff challenges from other heavyweights from within the party. The ensuing violence is a logical conclusion of that tussle. That is because, to achieve an overwhelming control, one needs to have an institutional mechanism, where the control over the panchayat and other local body governments (municipalities) become important. It is for this reason that we witness so much violence during panchayat elections in West Bengal, more than even during assembly or Lok Sabha elections.
The panchayat elections in West Bengal have a history of violence. During the 2018 panchayat polls, at least 25 people were killed, although the state DGP put the number of deceased at 18. The number of those killed in the 2013 panchayat election was 13, and in 2003 it was 61. In 2018, before the panchayat elections, TMC members had allegedly obstructed Opposition candidates from filing nomination papers. As a result, more than 20,000 seats (34 per cent) were won by Mamata Banerjee’s TMC uncontested. The use of muscle power was present in the rest of seats as well.
The desperation to have absolute control over the local bodies comes from the urge to have absolute control over funds, and consequently over the local people. While this battle to establish hegemony rages on, it is no longer confined within party circles. The recent incidents show a new trend where police are allegedly playing a proactive role in helping the ruling party. Already, the CBI has started looking into the possible role of the state police in the murder of Anis Khan.
The recent murder of newly elected Congress councillor Tapan Kandu in Purulia’s Jhalda is also a case in point. Kandu’s wife has alleged that the circle inspector at the local police station was putting pressure on her husband to join TMC, offering him the post of deputy chairman in the municipality board. Jhalda is one of the four municipalities where there was a tie in the panchayat election. Purulia Superintendent of Police S. Selvamurugan has said that the murder happened over a family feud.
The political hegemony thus achieved has a diabolical logic where it gives birth to hegemony within hegemony, and that in turn gives rise to violence in West Bengal.
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)