There is little doubt that the key political battle of 2021 — and indeed of the next four years till the 2024 general election — will be fought in West Bengal. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decided to aggressively expand in the east, and put up a formidable challenge in the Lok Sabha elections winning 18 of the 42 seats, the Trinamool Congress has been worried about the rise of a new challenger. This is healthy for democracy, for strong political and electoral competition gives voters choices and introduces checks and balances.
But a key tenet of this democratic competition is the need for a peaceful political space — where all actors can exercise their right to mobilise citizens, organise political demonstrations, and campaign actively. West Bengal has had a history of political violence and strong-arm tactics by ruling dispensations. Indeed, the three-decade-plus rule of the Left front was marked not just by its progressive land reforms and welfare schemes, but also coercion and total capture of state institutions, down to the level of panchayats. No one knows this better than Mamata Banerjee, who braved physical assaults and fought a long battle to oust the Left.
And that is why the onus is on Ms Banerjee to ensure a climate of peaceful and free political contestation. Repeated reports of attacks and harassment of BJP leaders and activists — based on control of State institutions and a coercive party machinery on the ground — are unacceptable in a democracy. Just as the BJP itself needs to allow this peaceful space for democratic challenges wherever it is dominant, the Trinamool must do so in Bengal. Only then will the 2021 contest be a true expression of popular will.