A crisis of civility in West Bengal

Derogatory language, taunts and jibes are regularly used in political discourse

Updated - November 21, 2022 02:05 am IST

Published - November 21, 2022 12:15 am IST

BJP workers protest against West Bengal’s Minister Akhil Giri’s comments about President Droupadi Murmu.

BJP workers protest against West Bengal’s Minister Akhil Giri’s comments about President Droupadi Murmu. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

On November 14, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee issued an apology for the objectionable remark made by Fisheries Minister Akhil Giri about President Droupadi Murmu and said the party had cautioned him against making such comments.

Ms. Banerjee, who broke her silence at a press conference three days after the remark drew nationwide condemnation, dropped no hints of taking any action against the Minister, however. At the same press conference, the Trinamool Congress chairperson also referred to a comment made by the Leader of the Opposition and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Suvendu Adhikari, which was directed at Trinamool lawmaker Birbaha Hansda.

A new low

The political discourse in the State has touched a new low over the last few years with the regular and repeated use of derogatory language, taunts and jibes at political opponents. Often, the political slugfest takes the form of personal attacks, which go on to dominate the narrative.

There were several such verbal exchanges during the 2021 Assembly polls in the State, when the Trinamool Congress was pushing back against the BJP’s attempt to “uproot” and “throw away” its government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Didi O Didi” jibe during his campaign drew criticism from many quarters.

After the Assembly polls too, when focus shifted away from the State, there have been regular verbal duels between BJP and Trinamool leaders. Ms. Banerjee has been at the receiving end of many personal attacks both before and after 2011, the year she was elected Chief Minister. That she decided, despite this, not to act against a Minister, whose remarks were described as misogynistic by leaders of her own party, sends the wrong message.

Politicians in the State — both from the Trinamool Congress and the BJP — use not only unparliamentary language, but also language that could incite violence. The ‘Khela Hobe’ (game is on) slogan of the Trinamool Congress for the 2021 Assembly polls also had a hidden element of violence. The BJP promised to not only defeat the Trinamool Congress, but to “uproot” it.

No political party in the recent past has acted against any party functionary for such uncivil remarks; in fact, such comments are normalised. Trinamool Congress leader Anubrata Mondal, who spoke of violence in the form of political innuendos, was even celebrated by the party for his skills, before he was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation earlier this year for his alleged involvement in the cross-border cattle smuggling scam. Former West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh also tried to grab eyeballs by regularly making remarks which incited violence against supporters of the Trinamool Congress. The Chief Minister has herself used unpalatable language to take on her opponents, including the Prime Minister. On August 29, while addressing a public rally, Ms. Banerjee said if she was not the Chief Minister, she would have asked her supporters to “snap the tongues of those trying to slander us”.

These remarks, which are uttered intentionally to invite applause at public rallies, affect not the political discourse, but also the overall political atmosphere and the social fabric as they regularly lead to political violence, especially during elections.

The objectionable comment by Mr. Giri is not an isolated incident or an unintended slip of the tongue. The Minister had made similar remarks directed at the President in the last week of October. Those went unnoticed, but his comments in Nandigram on November 11 led to an outrage. Initially coming to Mr. Giri’s defence, the Trinamool Congress leadership said that Mr. Adhikari had been calling him a “crow” for quite some time.

Trinamool’s failure

Politicians are in a continuous dialogue with the masses, and any remark that borders on the offensive and has the potential to lead to violence must not only be condemned, but acted upon. It is really unfortunate that a public representative can get away with remarks that insult the country’s highest constitutional functionary with nothing more than a warning. By not acting against Mr. Giri, the Trinamool Congress has lost an opportunity of bringing the political discourse on the right track. It has equally failed to warn everyone about how violent messaging is ruining the social fabric of West Bengal.

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