ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Of Conflict and Collaboration

Mamata Banerjee and the Making of ‘Franchisee Politics’ in West Bengal

The transformation of party society in West Bengal under the Trinamool Congress in which only Mamata Banerjee commands universal loyalty is traced. She has built an architecture of power that makes extensive political use of governmental resources, allows local party bosses to run their own fiefdom in exchange of total allegiance, and plays dangerously with religious, ethnic, and caste identities. On their part, the enterprising party leaders as “franchisees” use “Brand Mamata” in their bid to capture and retain territorial power. While such “franchisee politics” of “non-corporate crony capitalism” triggers unprecedented corruption and unlimited electoral violence, it also produces an economy requiring cooperation across religious and ethnic lines as a precondition for meeting people’s livelihood. By combining partisan conflict with social collaboration on the foundations of party society, West Bengal’s franchisee politics places a structural deterrence for the rapidly emergent Bharatiya Janata Party and its politics of religious polarisation.

The author would like to thank Srirupa Roy for her generous support in co-hosting a conference with Abdul Matin and the author on present West Bengal politics in Göttingen, Germany, on 22 and 23 June 2023, where a version of this paper was presented. The author is grateful to all the participants at the conference for their insightful comments and criticisms. “Metamorphoses of the Political,” M S Merian—R Tagore International Centre for Advanced Studies deserves gratitude for author’s visitorship at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen, Germany.

West Bengal hosted another blood-soaked panchayat election on 8 July 2023, in which nearly 50 people died of violence. No other state in the country has recorded such excessive violence around elections, which has seemingly become a routine occurrence in West Bengal. Such incidents reportedly fetched 70 lives in 2003, around 30 each in 2008 and 2013, and spiked to around 50 in 2018, which arguably marked, until 2023, the most unrestrained rigging in the state’s electoral history. It is nobody’s claim that such violence is of recent origin or specific to any one regime in power. Blood kept flowing in successive elections, especially in the rural polls, as the death tolls remained shockingly high both during the Left Front and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) periods.1 Such recurrence encourages one to ask if there is something unique in West Bengal’s political ecosystem demanding relentless bloodshed. What makes the stakes so high for these polls that make violence the final arbiter? Has the character of violence been the same during the Left Front as under the TMC? How does one contextualise such violence in West Bengal’s historically evolved political, economic, or cultural structures of power? This paper closely examines some key features of West Bengal’s polity from the Left Front to the TMC years, including the sudden emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), keeping these questions in view.

Violence and politics have a long confluence in West Bengal, as scholars variedly searched for its roots in anti-colonial terrorism, communist extremism, or Bengalis’ devotion to Shakti as a religious cult, etc. However, there is no denying that by trumping all other forms of social violence, partisan violence has taken almost an identitarian significance in the state. This is anathematic to the liberal view of democratic competition that treats party affiliation as voluntary, unlike one’s ascriptive “belonging” to a race, caste, or ethnic group. In West Bengal’s political field, however, one belongs to the party. Such a sense of belonging remained more or less stable for about three and a half decades of the Left Front rule. Once its government fell, there was almost immediately a lateral shift of many who were aligned to the Left Front to the new incumbent, the TMC. With the rise of the BJP, however, the pattern changed further, as there is now a two-way traffic between the TMC and the BJP, not only of the workers but also of the leaders and elected officials. Yet, people sacrificed their lives in the name of their parties.2

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Updated On : 13th Sep, 2023
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