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OP-ED: Bengali democracy, alive and well … yes, really

  • Published at 09:12 pm April 9th, 2021
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How to hold pluralist, participatory, and democratic elections

Whenever another general election shows up on the calendar in West Bengal, I feel a sense triumph over the late ruler of the erstwhile united Pakistan, the self-declared Field Marshal Ayub Khan, whose vaunted “Decade of Development” was the talk de rigueur of sycophantic intelligentsia in both wings of Pakistan once upon of a time. Such talk has really not gone out of fashion in Dhaka, come to think of it.

Electoral politics in the Indian state of West Bengal has always fascinated me, if for no other reason than the fact that those opaar Bengalis have somehow maintained an almost unbroken legacy of pluralist, participatory, democratic elections for over a century, starting with the 1920 general elections under the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of the year prior. 

The noisy, chaotic, participatory exercise of the ballot among the Bengali speakers in India comforts me whenever I am reminded of the argument made so infamously by Ayub Khan (and repeated ad nauseum by his obvious ideological soulmates today) that pluralist democracy is a phenomenon unsuited to South Asians who should emphasize “development over democracy” instead. Not surprisingly, those toadies who benefited from a lack of meaningful democracy were (and are) always there to go along with such utterly unoriginal apologia for one-person or one-family or one-party rule.

Now, I have no crystal ball to decipher which way the winds are blowing as our kinsfolk in Malda, Calcutta, Hooghly, 24 Parganas, or my ancestral Murshidabad go through multiple phases of this sacred exercise of choosing who rules them for the next few years. After the end of 35 years of Left Front rule in 2011, West Bengal’s politics have become less predictable and more competitive, even as India’s national level political calculus move in the opposite direction regretfully.

A glancing perusal of the colourful collage of electioneering across the border points out some common threads that would give lie to the autocratic musings of Ayub Khan and his latter-day intellectual compadres in Bangladesh. 

The Election Commission of India (ECI) is being a stickler for rules, whether it is the party of the governments in Calcutta and Delhi or their respective oppositions; instead of making bizarre pronouncements about India’s elections being better than the Western world’s, the ECI is making sure that an actual level playing field is maintained. 

Rallies, parades, marches, and speeches are happening across the state of West Bengal, with very little effort by government or the police or the “student” and “labour” auxiliaries to stop, harass, or intimidate speakers, candidates, or participants. The attacks on political opponents are mostly limited to flowery and intense rhetoric, which itself is not being muzzled under the guise of some dictatorial law with nice sounding monikers like “digital” and “cyber” attached to it. 

Few, if any, are authentic reports that ballots have been cast overnight before a polling station opened or that ruling party thugs are “helping” people cast the “correct” vote on electronic voting machines. Newspapers, broadcast networks, and online outlets are sending out hundreds of journalists to cover the campaigns and the balloting and few media professionals are being assaulted by police or ruling party vigilantes. All this is happening in the backdrop of an intense campaign with some of the biggest political names from all over India regularly holding events from Darjeeling to Howrah.

None of this implies that general elections to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly are calm, cool, and efficient affairs. On the contrary, as befits the Bengali race, they are anything but. As an English civil servant of the mid part of the 20th century remarked, Punjabis and Bengalis can make election campaigns look and feel something like a cross between rowdy rugby matches and rowdier religious festivals. 

Yet, such a rowdy process -- overseen by an impartial umpire (the election commission), observed by independent referees (the press), and provided security by non-partisan police -- is the only valid method to ascertain the will of a free people on the question of who governs them.

Long before Ayub Khan was on the scene and long after he has been gone, Bengalis have been exercising the cherished foundational tradition of democracy. Well, at least half of them, that is.

In a world where beggars cannot be choosers, I suppose half is better than none.

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]