By Aatreyee Ghosh:
Bengal goes to vote in seven phases from the 4th of April 2016. So will Assam and later, several others will also go to the polls. However, the Bengal elections are different. You ask why? Because Bengal, this time, does not only vote to decide its government; Bengal votes to answer the question that stares at every voter’s face in the region: Do we want to be free?
To any bystander, that might seem like a pretty melodramatic statement. But anyone who has been clued-in on Bengal politics in the last five years would know that nothing could be closer to the truth than that. Bengalis and politics have often been considered like two long lost brothers (or sisters, to be politically correct) who embrace each other with gusto. We might not care much about being hard-working or, for that matter, very ambitious, but we Bengalis love our politics. We love to keep ourselves abreast of the smallest of developments and at any given time can tell you all in one breath the who, what and why of the political scenario in any part of the country. And this is why the present election becomes a symbol of our survival.
In 2011, the Trinamool Congress came to power with a thumping victory after 34 years of ‘Left Rule’ in Bengal. After the alleged ‘terror politics’ in the reign of late Jyoti Basu, as Bengal crumbled under the heavy weight of a breakdown of education, lack of industry, and lack of a voice for the people, the good work of the last Left Chief Minister, Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and his cabinet, went unnoticed as Bengal and its people gasped for change. In walked TMC, with the fire-breathing Mamata Banerjee who promised people ‘Poriborton’ (Change).
As oceans of people, from the modest wage-earners to the intellectuals, flooded the streets rallying for her win and against the Left Front’s rule of 34 years, history visited us like a spectre as the very ideas of farmer rights were championed over industrial development. Tata Motors’ ‘Nano’ plant in Singur, the pet project of Mr. Bhattacharya (which was supposed to be Bengal’s ticket towards a new industrial growth) left and in its wake broke the back of the Left Front and paved the way for the historic moment in West Bengal politics.
Five years into this new government, it seems like Bengal has realised the grave mistake that it committed in its blind obsession with change. The five years of TMC rule has seen the state buckle under the apparent misrule of uneducated ministers, rampant extortion of money from common people through muscle power, the unholy rise of land syndicates that works much like the mafia in America and, most importantly, the whimsical and totalitarian nature of its chief minister who appears to be suffering from an acute persecution complex.
It started small, from a rape case being called ‘sajano ghotona‘ (doctored incident), to jailing professors for circulating a cartoon mocking her on facebook to the deeply disturbing events of calling students ‘Maoists’ for asking her uncomfortable questions about the lack of growth in her state. As scams like Sharada and stings like Narada, where many cabinet ministers among others were seen on tape taking bribes for shoddy work, became public, the party only called it “dirty political vendetta”. What Bengal has turned into under her rule seems comically similar to the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in which she answered any question with “Off with his head!” Only this time, it appears to be happening in real.
As an under-construction bridge in Kolkata’s busiest part collapsed on 31st March 2016, burying dozens under it, the Chief Minister’s first reaction was, it was the previous government’s fault. And with this one statement, something snapped in the complacent Bengali’s mind. We have been turning a blind eye to the misfortune we had brought to our homes in the name of change. We did have change, but it was a change that took us to the abyss in four years. We realised we had sold ourselves to the Devil caught up in the frenzied chant for Poriborton.
The good thing with democracy is that unlike a ‘deal with the Devil’, we do get second chances to rectify ourselves and our mistakes. As Bengal stands on the brink of another election, the average Bengali has two clear choices: One, continue with the politics of a CM and her cabinet who do not shy away from mouthing threats like that of taking stock and paying “inch by inch“ every dissenter once they come back to power or, second, stand up with an alliance of the Left and Congress that has come together, ditching their individual ideologies and opposing ideas realising that there is something far greater at stake here: the democracy to even have opposing views. The first could push us to our own destruction. The second could give us the voice that we seem to have almost forgotten – the voice of dissent, to argue and to speak for ourselves.
There is an old saying which we Bengalis are often seen repeating: “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” This election season, we stand to either make this statement true and prove to the entire country and to ourselves that if you push people to the brink they will fight back and claim their rights, or perish under another five years of misrule, moral breakdown and the death of our individual selves. As ‘goons’ (councillors and leaders) indulge in rampant scare tactics to silence the common voter (the last Municipal elections in the elite and educated Salt Lake area saw unprecedented violence where journalists, common voters were beaten on live television at various booths), many of us might have a small voice telling us, is it worth the effort going against such violence? Is it safe? You might not be safe. You will be threatened, maybe even beaten up. But know that behind every threat lies the insecurity of a government which knows the power of the people.Go and vote Bengal. Do it to save your own selves.