Elections in India: A snapshot of West Bengal
In the summer of 2000, I was posted in West Bengal as a Correspondent for NDTV. Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya, member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the Chief Minister and he had just brought his party back to power after the resignation of Jyoti Basu, who, it seems had ruled West Bengal for decades. I knew Mr Bhattacharya cursorily during his reign as the Home Minister of the West Bengal when, it was joked, that the police officers couldn’t look after law and administration because they were busy reading Kafka and Camus. Mr Bhattacharya was fond of his literature and he let the world know it and he had penned several translations of both his favourite authors. During an interview with me, he had thundered that he would never allow the ‘saffron robed goons’ (meaning the BJP) into West Bengal.
Nineteen years later, as people of India and West Bengal, 900 million of them, vote in the general election, the situation couldn’t be more different. Mr Bhattacharya has long since lost power as has his party. He is confined to his home by ill health. His much derided opponent, Ms Mamta Banerjee of Trinamool Congress holds complete sway over the state. Media houses are controlled with an iron hand. And, ironically, her main opponent are not the Leftists but the BJP, those whom Mr Bhattacharya has so summarily dismissed. The fight is against the right vs the right.
During my recent travels in the state, I met with several senior journalists who were gearing up for the elections. An editor of a newspaper with whom I was having a working lunch told me that his newspaper had run a mildly critical article on the state government’s handling of a rise in dengue deaths in the state. The owner called him to say that he had received a call from the CM herself. Ms Banerjee told the owner why such an article was published and if she should stop all the government advertising for this paper. The editor and the owner both buckled immediately. Free media in the world’s largest democracy is a myth.