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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 29 New Delhi July 6, 2019

India: A General Election, Emerging Model of Power and Populist Resistance

Sunday 7 July 2019

by Ranbir Samaddar

Political observers loosely speak of authoritarianism, populism, etc., as if these are ideologies and not concrete political practices, ideologically opposed to democracy. This commentary reflecting on the recently concluded Indian general elections, particularly in West Bengal, throws light on some of these concrete political situations and practices through which a particular form of power emerges and resistance too takes shape. In the process the commentary also tells us of some of the dynamics of postcolonial democracy marked by violence and the emergence of a new model of power.

Violence of a Democratic Ritual

Take the case of the so-called “electoral violence” in West Bengal in the recently concluded general elections in India, which passed through seven phases of voting (April 11-19 May, counting on May 23). West Bengal had to slug it out through the highest number of voting phases (along with UP and Bihar). For the first five phases, the verdict of the special police observer, Vivek Dubey, and the special election observer, Ajay Nayek, was that the polls had been by and large peaceful. The Election Commission of India sought re-polling in only eight booths out of more than 60,000 in the State.

Except on sporadic occasions in the third and sixth phases, people were able to cast their votes and people had cast their votes freely. The Chief State Electoral Officer, Arif Aftab, gave the same assessment. Life loss was minimal with three unfortunate deaths. In 2014, according to police reports, West Bengal had witnessed at least 14 deaths during the Lok Sabha elections, with around 1166 recorded incidents of violence. This time, after the six phases the number of incidents, major and minor all together, was 337. With the elections spanning more than a month with seven phases involving 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, readers can make their own calculations about the so-called intensity of violence. Also West Bengal had consistently recorded higher voter turnout in the country in terms of percentage. The so-called ‘peace’ elsewhere had not ensured greater electoral participation of people.

When the West Bengal Government was accused of failing to curb or even encouraging election-time violence last year, the TMC Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien remarked: “To all ‘newborn’ experts on Bengal, Panchayat Elections in State have a history. In 1990s about 400 people were killed in poll violence under the CPI-M rule. The number of dead in 2003 was 40. Every death is a tragedy.” Now, he said, with the number of deaths coming down below 20 it was at its lowest. A few dozen incidents, say, 40, out of 58,000 booths. What is the percentage?

Meanwhile on the inaugural day of the elections two people died in an IED blast in Maharashtra. Reports of EVM (electronic voting machines) glitches and multiple complaints from voters about their names not being on the electoral list or the indelible link on their fingers quickly fading marked the beginning. In Odisha repeated incidents of poll-related violence in different districts including the State capital, Bhubaneswar, became matters of concern. Of four prominent cases the most brutal was the killing of a political activist, Ramachandra Behera, in Ghasipura in north Odisha’s Keonjhar district. Here armed miscreants dragged him from his house and repeatedly stabbed him to death. Then they chopped off both his hands and took them away. Four days later, the police recovered the hands from a pond. Similarly, a senior BJP leader from coastal Khurda district, Manguli Jena, was shot dead while he was returning home after campaigning for a party nominee in Khurda town. Police have arrested a few miscreants in connection with both the murder incidents. As expected, both the ruling BJD and the BJP, who are fighting hard to capture the majority of the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats, blamed each other for the poll-related violence. Both parties alerted the Election Commission over the issue. Scattered bomb explosions and clashes between rival political groups marked voting in the crucial fifth phase of India’s marathon elections. In Kashmir, youths hurled stones at election staff and their security guards as they moved into schools and government buildings on the eve of the elections to set up polling stations in the area. Troops fired shotguns and tear gas to quell the anti-India protests that injured people.

However it was clear that these reported incidents and many such others were considered as of a minor nature. They did not make the elections in the rest of the country violent. But the ruling party at the Centre even before the elections had started had demanded that all State Police forces must be removed from the electoral process in West Bengal, and that elections must be conducted solely with the deployment of paramilitary soldiers, who were “Central soldiers”, and hence presumably impartial. The Left joined the chorus. In the last phase, an unprecedented number of 700 companies of paramilitary forces were deployed to conduct elections, thus on a rough estimate 70,000 soldiers were pressed into duty to lead people into voting in nine constituencies.

The Right-wing party ruling at the Centre and parties on the Left were still not happy in the end. The Kashmir model of holding elections through a military mode appeared to them as the requisite recipe for a recalcitrant State like West Bengal. To legitimise that mode and the overall militarisation of elections, violence had to be produced. There had to be overwhelming talk of violence. Media and a churlish Opposition in the State like the Left have only contributed to electoral militarisation.

Selective Militarisation

Yet this militarisation was and will be only selective. In the model that is emerging, States like Gujarat, temporarily browbeaten into submission, did not need the induction of paramilitary forces, and elections were held in one phase. The Supreme Court did not intervene in the process despite complaints of gross arbitrariness being lodged. In West Bengal, chained with the iron shackle of seven phases of voting, and with hundreds and thousands of armed forces guarding the iron cage, the paramilitary forces entered election booths, beat up people including a sitting candidate severely, quarantined political activists, and twice opened fire on unarmed people.

An official protested and consequently was immediately relieved of duty. Meanwhile several State Police officers and administrative officials had been changed on instructions of the ruling party at the Centre. On the grounds that the Election Commission is a constitutional body, its powers were interpreted in the broadest possible way—often at the cost of the powers of other constitutional bodies such as a State Government. For instance, it was argued that since Article 324 vests in an Election Commission the function of superintendence, direction, and control of elections, this Article, as the Supreme Court held in 1977, “operates in areas left unoccupied by legislation” and the words “superintendence, direction and control” operate summarily in the “conduct of all elections”.

According to the Court, Article 324 was thus intended to be comprehensive so that it could take care of “surprise situations”. Yet the Constitution had not defined these powers and they are now interpreted in the broadest of terms. The Court had however cautioned that this power had to be exercised, not mindlessly or mala fide, neither arbitrarily nor with partiality. The recalcitrant government of West Bengal asked, in the absence of any constitutional elaboration of the powers of the Election Commission, who would check if the conduct of the Commission had been mindless and mala fide or not?

In the West Bengal situation, marked by some violence and vandalism, which were not at all alarming during the actual election period, who was to decide if the Commission had any need to invoke its summary powers, including the residuary power granted by Article 324? Ironically violence erupted after the elections were over, results were announced, and power started changing hands at the grassroots.

The fact was overlooked that the Election Commission was not a representative body, or a judicial body, or a democratically constituted body, but an administrative body appointed by the Central Government with summary powers, and hence could act arbitrarily. In such a closed situation, it was to be expected that violence was one of the ways out. The idea behind this emerging model of power was a combination of selective use of threat and force, ruthless application of law unmediated and unrestrained, and at times aided by the judicial process—in other words, complete centralisation of the process of elections bypassing the federal polity, and the legitimisation of all these steps through the mobilisation of the media for an over-whelming campaign of “mob violence” so that the media-orchestrated campaign could act as a template of the application of power. Who could then later deny that imposition of Central Rule through Article 356 was the only way out for the Central Government to end lawlessness, and rein in a disobedient State?

Passion versus Might

West Bengal had refused to be browbeaten. Not Leftist homilies, but for the past few years populist campaigns were on to mobilise people in villages and small towns, where the domination of educated gentry was less. Women and lower classes were asked to come out in large numbers to make the election a hard- fought political exercise. Such a strategy was deliberately confrontationist. So, if for the BJP it was a question of Modi representing the nation versus the rest, in Bengal the populists ensured that it was Mamata, representing Bengal versus the rest. Likewise if it was for Modi a question of Hindu religion and a pure nation based on expulsion of the impure (the immigrants, Muslims, etc., through an NRC— National Registration of Citizens—exercise in West Bengal), for the populists it was one of syncretism, ecumenism, and a heritage of Bengal whose doors of hospitality were to be open for all.

The polarities are several. One had only to watch how the milieu of tension, confrontation, and violence built up gradually. It is a pressing politics on the part of the populists surcharging the political mood of the people with exposure of the powers at the Centre day in and day out —a sort of relentless oppositional commitment to dismantle the power of the day. It was affective politics at its most pure. Populism posed passion against might. The path, as proved later, was risky. The odds had been strangely underestimated.

In any case, politics in this contentious milieu could not but be conducted in war mode. Beneath the speeches of campaigners and deployment of soldiers, officers, poll panels, money, media personnel, and countless foot soldiers, also the meetings of villagers in the burning countryside of West Bengal, the rural poor, minority groups, and informal discussions among endless bands of informal workers, one could hear the muffled sounds of a social war.

The parliamentary Leftists said, society was being polarised this way, this was undesirable, and they wanted to stop it. Thus they refused to take sides even when classes entered a tug of war, arraigned against each other, and the Right was advancing. The Left was thus conducting itself like a small town guardian of morality. The parliamentary Leftists refused to acknowledge that authoritarianism could draw legitimacy from democratic sources, and in a situation of what we may call “soft authoritarianism” illegitimate actions of the lower classes acted as the very locomotive of social war. The grammar of baboo communism could not be a guide to politics in such a contentious scenario, where illegal mobilisations and acts became common acts in politics in West Bengal.


The author is a prominent political scientist of West Bengal.

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