Last Saturday, the Election Commission of West Bengal (India) Amarendra Singh held a meeting of election observers at Sisir Manch in Kolkata. Singh was exasperated. “Total anarchy going on in the state,” he told his colleagues. He detailed at least “six incidents of anarchy from across the state.” When a man like Singh uses the word “anarchy,” he means mayhem and disorder. It is a stiff word to use. It refers to the fact that the state administration has lost control of the streets.
West Bengal, which is governed by the Trinamul Congress (TMC), is to hold local body elections in 42,000 seats across this state of 91 million people. These elections are to be held in the first week of May. Across the state, as opposition candidates went to file their nomination papers, thugs associated with the TMC beat them and denied them this basic democratic right—to run for elections.
If this violence had taken place in rural West Bengal, then the urban newspapers might have not noticed it. But that Saturday, the TMC sent its armed gangs to Alipore—in the heart of Kolkata—to fight off any challengers. “Trinamul men with firearms moved around the [district headquarters] in the presence of police officers,” said Shamik Lahiri, a local leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI-M. “We couldn’t file a single nomination.”
The violence has been harsh. Two veterans of the CPI-M—nine-time Member of Parliament Basudeb Acharia and seven-time Member of Parliament Ramchandra Dome—were both taken to hospital for their wounds. Acharia was beaten in Kashipur, while Dome suffered a bomb attack on the CPI-M office in Nalhati. Senior leaders of the CPI-M led the processions to file nomination papers. Neither their age nor their prestige saved them from violence. Blood was drawn last weekend from the best known and the least known Communists.
The TMC workers did not stop at the Communists. They attacked the Congress Party candidates and the candidates from the right-wing BJP. It did not matter that the BJP rules from Delhi. The TMC wants to dominate West Bengal. To destroy any opposition is the best way for total power.
Sandeshkhali, a constituency in the beautiful Sundarbans, had been represented by the CPI-M from 1977 to 2016. When the Communists were routed in West Bengal in the 2011 elections, Nirapada Sardar of the CPI-M nonetheless won this seat by a comfortable margin. The TMC went after Sardar—in 2015, he survived an armed attack on him in Barasat. Pressure against Sardar and the CPI-M grew. The next year, Sardar lost his seat to the TMC’s Sukumar Mahata. Violence against the CPI-M opened the door to the BJP, which has now found terrorized men willing to join its ranks against the TMC. This rural district is now caught in a spiral of violence between the TMC and the BJP—both using their common coin of money and aggression to gain authority. Democratic institutions have eroded quite dramatically. This time, the TMC got its act together and has prevented any opposition candidate from filing their papers for the May local body elections in Sandeshkhali.
Grammar of Anti-Democracy
What is ongoing in West Bengal is part and parcel of what is happening elsewhere in the world. It took hundreds of years of struggle for working people to win the right to elect their representatives. That right seems to have become too expensive. Across the world, from India to Mexico, it has become apparent that the ruling elites are no longer willing to extend democratic privileges to the people. Indeed, they have revoked them.
The grammar of anti-democracy is well developed, from the arrest of candidates of the people to disinformation. Here is an Incomplete Manual of Anti-Democracy:
1. Arrest of Rival Candidates. In Brazil, the frontrunner in the October presidential election—Lula—has been arrested ; it is unlikely that the courts will allow him to stand in the election. In Turkey, the two leaders of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag—are in prison , their party posts taken from them, the party itself under threat for its existence.
2. Theft of Elections. Mexico will hold a presidential election in July. The candidate who leads the polls is Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist MORENA party. This will be López Obrador’s third attempt at the presidency. He won the 2006 election, but was denied the right to the post. He claimed it was electoral fraud. A few months ago, Salvador Nasralla of the leftist Libre-PINU party was clearly leading in the vote count when the machines stopped. When they resumed, the right-wing incumbent was in the lead—and it was this candidate who won the election.
3. Use of force. In Kenya, before last year’s election, the ruling party used the full force of the army and police to intimidate opposition candidates and voters. Sexual violence was used as a weapon of anti-democracy. This was almost a repeat of the 2007-08 election violence in Kenya. In Colombia, the paramilitary forces have already begun to intimidate supporters of the left-wing FARC with assassinations and threats. In January, Wilmar Asprilla and Angel de Jesus Montoyo conducted a community meeting in support of a left-leaning candidate for the Antioquia seat. They were both shot to death.
4. Use of Riots. In India, the ruling political party has fomented religious conflict in order to drive certain voters away from the polls and others to the polls. Close studies of these pre-poll riots show that they have a marked influence on the way voters operate. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 influenced the victory of the BJP. Right after Yogi Adityanath became Chief Minister of the state, he withdrew 131 criminal cases against the rioters. It was a gift to those who had helped him get elected.
5. Disinformation. In the United States, there is concern about the use of social media to drive the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. But this is a worldwide phenomenon. In India, the BJP has financed troll farms, where its troll warriors spend their day on-line maligning people and spreading mischievous stories about their opponents. In Zambia, the ruling Patriotic Front members have taken to suggest that the newly formed Socialist Party is fostering ‘homosexual activities’ (where homosexuality is, unfortunately, banned following British colonial laws).
What is happening in West Bengal is a new item in this unfolding grammar of anti-democracy. It is to stop opposition candidates from even filing their nomination papers.
In Nalhati, West Bengal, Hiroo Let was marching with Dr. Ramchandra Dome to file nomination papers. Hiroo Let, an activist of the CPI-M, comes from a Dalit (oppressed caste) community. The bomb thrown at them fragmented, with splinters getting into his body. Hiroo Let fell to the ground. TMC activists set upon him, beating him mercilessly. When Hiroo Let was taken to Burdwan Medical College, the doctors found that his jawbone had been broken and that his body was weak from the bomb blast and the beatings. There is relative silence about the violence faced by Hiroo Let. No memes have circulated about him. Nothing is said about this man upon whose body is being written the obituary for democracy.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016).