All governments are expected to be result oriented, particularly on the economic front.
China, Vietnam, almost the entire South East Asia, and successful monarchies in West Asia proved that democracy is no panacea. Standing at the other extreme is the rich and democratic West.
In the Indian context, democracy is non-negotiable. That justifies the discourse on democratic freedom in the country, ignoring its superior performance on the economic front, in recent times.
The fallacy, however, lies in the fact that the critics treat India as a composite and give a selective free pass to states, who are responsible for ensuring basic law and order and democratic freedom, in the name of federalism.
Politics in two states in India made maximum misuse of this free pass. Both failed to produce results. Both remained outside India’s post-liberalisation growth narrative that gripped every other state from North East India to Tamil Nadu or Kerala.
Bihar is a straight-jacketed case of giving precedence to casteism over governance and growth. So, it remained, where it was. Among the differences, the deadly caste violence is now a thing of the past.
West Bengal is more complex. The long history of social reforms made Hindu Bengalis the least casteist. Sufism made Bengali Muslims relatively liberal. More importantly, the state has a rich legacy in business, industry, education, etc.
However, nothing stopped the state’s sustained decline. Economically it’s a riches-to-rags story. Freedom of expression is suppressed for the last half a century by a cycle of ruthless single-party dominance and unbridled violence, as was evident in the blood-soaked panchayat (rural body) election.
The Culture Of Social Justification
What makes the state exceptional is the ways and means its ruling class has devised to justify violence. Even the prying eyes of social media failed to bring any cultural change. If at all it emboldened the culprits.
The justification for ‘political violence’ is a contribution of the communists. Initially, they killed people and/or deprived them economically, in the name of ideology. Later, it became a full-fledged factory of violence to suppress the opposition.
Check the history, as the popularity of the CPI(M) waned since the 1990s, they resorted to more violence.
People died before and after every election. And, since elections — from Panchayat, municipality to assembly and Lok Sabha — are almost an annual affair, so they died in hundreds every year.
No one keeps records of such deaths. While in opposition, Mamata Banerjee used to accuse the CPI(M) government of killing thousands. CPI(M) shrugged off such allegations because the administration worked overtime to keep the skeletons under the carpet.
Now that Banerjee is in power, all allegations of violence fall on equally deaf ears. It's not exactly deaf either. Criticism of the ruler had cost heavily in the past. It costs more now. The ecosystem of normalisation of violence became stronger.
Take the 2023 panchayat election, for example. Local media is analysing the voting trends of a mockery of an election where the ruling Trinamool Congress won nearly 10 per cent of seats uncontested, indicating unreported or under-reported violence.
Many opposition candidates fled villages after filing nominations. Not to mention that 40-50 already died. According to a ground report by The Hindu, Murshidabad is gripped by complete lawlessness.
But that doesn’t affect the social conscience. Pro-Trinamool intellectuals deny the allegations and/or, like the proverbial Freudian slip, compare West Bengal with the BJP-ruled Manipur, in television debates.
The tiny northeastern state has arguably suffered the longest spell of extremism in India and is recently hit by ethnic violence. In response, the Centre had taken part of the administrative control in Manipur by invoking Article 355 of the Constitution.
Violence was the primary means, by which the Left overstayed in power for at least 20 years. Unfortunately, it has become a model. And, that’s a serious worry. Will the state’s political culture change with a mere change in government?
Isolated From The National Agenda
The violent atmosphere is a prime reason behind West Bengal’s economic downfall. Industries left the state in the face of hooliganism and anarchy. The history was repeated in 2008, when Tata Nano left Singur in an anarchic situation, alerting investors worldwide.
Over the last 50 years, only the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government (2000-2011) of CPI(M) made a serious attempt to ensure law and order and attract industry. It ended up in a nightmare. Nothing meaningful happened on the economic front in the state, since.
India witnessed unprecedented infrastructure building. Every state benefitted from it. Even Bihar approved an expressway project. West Bengal was largely a spectator.
The strategic north-south highway widening project initiated by the Manmohan Singh government couldn’t be completed. The metro rail projects in Kolkata initiated during Bhattacharjee’s rule are not over.
Now that the country has hit its sweetest growth phase with fresh investments in manufacturing, Bengal remains a spectator. It doesn’t want to be a party to India’s growth narrative.
If a non-BJP Telangana, Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh can join the race to take advantage of the Centre’s production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme to attract prized electronics investments, what is stopping West Bengal?
As India’s most strategic border state, West Bengal has a major role to play in helping the central agencies in ensuring security. Why does the ruling politics then openly and repeatedly vilify the central security forces?
Punjab has well-known problems concerning drugs and militancy. It is not a BJP-ruled state. And security personnel have a greater and more lethal presence on that border. Why don’t we hear such stray allegations against central forces from Punjab?
Why West Bengal is so toxic?
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