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Many summers ago Gopal Krishna Gokhale had said: “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” In those days of civility, Bengal led the way in literature, science, education, social reforms and patriotism.
Alas those days have long, long gone.
If today there is anything the rest of India can learn from West Bengal is how to rig elections. Rigging elections – from panchayat to Parliament – is part art, part science. A knowledge of social realities, economics and plain human psychology helps.
Bengal has finessed the phenomenon called “scientific rigging”. Rigging is not new. Congress under Siddhartha Shankar Ray used rigging to win the 1972 assembly election.
It was the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front that perfected the art of winning elections. The philosophy was simple: the end justifies the means. And if it meant use bullets to win ballots, so be it.
The Left Front ruled West Bengal from 1977 to 2011. In its 30-year-plus rule the Left infiltrated every aspect of Bengali society. And that made it easier for the communists to manipulate elections.
Right from nomination of papers to the actual voting, every step was monitored by the apparatchik. Slightly creaky in the beginning, by the time of the 14th assembly polls in 2006 the CPI (M)’s election machinery was an extremely efficient, well-oiled one.
Blood flows cheap
Violence, or the threat of violence, remains an important element in West Bengal’s political laboratory.
Let’s start at the very beginning, the electoral rolls. Names of opposition supporters are deleted as are sundry others from the electoral names. Bogus names are added.
Opposition candidates who want to contest are told not to. First politely, then it becomes slightly physical. Mobs spread across the country side trying to keep opposition candidates away from filing nominations.
There’s a touch of symbolism also. Wives of opposition candidates are sent pieces of white cloth (white being a symbol of widowhood among Bengali Hindus) so that they prevent their husbands from standing in elections.
And of course the threat of rape hangs heavy. Stand as an opposition candidate and face the consequences.
Just after it came to power in 1977 the Left Front, and especially the CPI (M), hastened the process of unionisation of the police force, teachers and state government employees.
All these people play an important role in the election process either as enforcers of law or as booth officers. It makes sense to have sympathetic people in and around polling booths.
Then comes fielding people with the same name as that of the main opposition candidate. This was in the pre-EVM era where the ballot paper did not carry the candidates’ pictures. A subtle way to confuse the voter.
Cadres day out
In the run up to polling day, thousands of cadres spread out to various constituencies reminding voters of the pitfalls of voting for the opposition. Usually the arm-twisting is gentle but the hint that things can turn painful is always there.
A variation of this tactic is to tell voters not to turn up at all, their votes would be taken care of. Why stand in queue under the blazing sun when “the Party” can take care of minor issues such as choosing an MLA or MP? After all aren’t Marxists a party of the people?
But then there are stubborn voters who prefer to exercise their franchise. When they reach the polling booth they find a long queue, usually made of bogus voters. These bogus voters help in wasting time of the polling officers arguing with them.
Voting enclosures are placed near windows so that voters can be “helped” from outside to choose the right candidate or to find out who has voted against the party.
A more innovative method has evolved in the EVM era to detect opposition voters. The opposition key on the EVM machine is smeared with something strong such as ittar. Party cadres smell the fingers of voters to find out if they’ve voted for the opposition.
And then there is the use of bombs — first to scare away voters and also to divert the attention of the security forces.
There is always an air of fear hanging around elections in West Bengal. And this is largely because of the prevalence of terror. Polling agents of rivals are beaten up as are voters.
This violence has become more overt and rampant in the Trinamool Congress regime. The worrying thing is the institutionalisation of violence, especially in the past few years.
Surely this is not what Gopal Krishna Gokhale meant?