Wednesday, November 14, 2007



Democracy bears one distinctive birthmark. It upholds debate and discussion and believes that all differences in society can be resolved through the process of dialogue. It thus demarcates itself from modes of politics that seek to resolve differences on the streets through violent encounters and intimidation. West Bengal is a democracy and is also part of a democratic polity. West Bengal is ruled by a government elected through universal adult suffrage and has an elected assembly called the Bidhan Sabha. It is unfortunate that this latter body has been rendered utterly irrelevant by the practices and behaviour of politicians, irrespective of their ideology and their political colour. For the last 11 months, the state of West Bengal has been in the throes of a major controversy over Nandigram, and there have been eruptions of violence in the area. Yet it has occurred to no one — political parties, intellectuals and so on — to suggest that the entire issue should be discussed and debated in the Bidhan Sabha by the elected representatives of the people. Yet, this is the only democratic way to resolve the matter.

This disregard for democratic institutions and politics has a very long lineage. It perhaps harks back to the mode of politics practised by Bengal’s most popular political hero. The communist parties, of course, mastered the art of street politics. It is on record that they expressed their disagreement with or disapproval of a government policy or action by taking to the streets and indulging in an orgy of destruction of public property. Within the Bidhan Sabha, they obstructed discussion by screaming and shouting and by generally causing disruption. When they came to power in the late Seventies, the communists strengthened their control over street politics by the naked use of cadre power and the blatant deployment of intimidation, and, if necessary, by killings. Mamata Banerjee, when she emerged as the principal opposition to the Left in West Bengal, merely used against the communists the methods the latter had used when they had been in opposition. Nandigram is the outcome of this long lineage of violence. It is the acme of street politics where only muscle power thrives.

Yet the alternative was open. It was always possible for any of the warring parties in Nandigram to ask for a full debate on the subject in the Bidhan Sabha. If this was not allowed, they could have appealed to the governor of the state to permit such a debate. This route was never tried; there are reasons to suspect that such an alternative was not even contemplated. Political parties know of the irrelevance of the legislative assembly because they themselves have made the institution irrelevant in West Bengal. Thus the state is that supreme incongruity: a democracy sans democratic institutions.