Examining elections in Bengal’s ‘mind-scape’
Elections are an integral and quintessential part of a systematic democratic process. Yet, for most of the times, they could turn out to be highly unsystematic, far less predictive and too chaotic – both in terms of their outcome as well as the operation of conducting them.
The 1914 born Jyotirindra Basu however must have believed to the contrary. He donned the hat of the Chief Minister of India’s eastern state of West Bengal (hereafter Bengal) – steady, firm and confident – from 1977 to 2000. He must have developed the ‘magical realism’ of controlling the fluctuating realms of the elections. His sorboharar (for the have-nots) political party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPIM] led a Left Front coalition regime in Bengal for a period of over three decades; till they were dislodged as recently as in 2011 by the Trinamool (grass-roots) Congress party led by Ms Mamata Banerjee.
Ritanjan Das in his PhD thesis titled “History, Ideology and Negotiation” submitted at London School of Economics in January 2013 argues rather rationally about Bengal, positing theoretical as well as phenomenological viewpoints. He asks the question: “Once the CPIM established authority, how did the state operate under it?” Das refers to Djilas’ characterisation of a post-revolutionary communist society in order to describe West Bengal under the CPIM. Djilas’ hypothesis that the post-revolutionary communist state machinery abandons all forms of autonomy and objectivity so as to act only as an instrument of the party was corroborated in the CPIM controlled West Bengal from 1977 to 2011. Das concludes that in Bengal under the Left Front, most state institutions were turned into political instruments. Moreover, Das notes quite pertinently that ‘the CPIM adopted a complex and nuanced approach towards its duties of governance’ as it was operating within the perimeter of parliamentary democracy.
Pre-2011 Bengal’s social structure threw up distinct classes: the capitalists favoured by the ruling regime. The Party Apparatchiki came a close second. The ‘third estate’ was composed of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the peasantry. Most significant nonetheless was the Party Apparatchiki – a remnant of the Stalinist regime of pre-1991 Soviet Russia. In Bengal, it covered a wide spectrum of individuals: from a rickshaw-puller/auto-wallah to an industrialist, from a sportsperson to an academic, a painter, sculptor or an actor. The party-cadre (Apparatchiki) at the other end, enjoyed privilege, prestige and power.
In the pandemic affected 2020 – which Stephanie Zacharek in a stimulating piece for the Time magazine’s 14th December issue terms as ‘the worst year ever’ – seemingly the socio-political-economic landscape of Bengal eerily reflects the pre-2011 conditions. The much anticipated change in a post-CPIM climate has hardly been salubrious. Political shenanigans continued, with however less noticeable features occurring in the sphere of urban development, agrarian uplift, and overall employment opportunities for that matter. With several measures of dynamic transformation sliding downhill, the biggest ‘static’ however was the political culture inherited from the pre-2011 regime – the Party Apparatchiki and their hegemonic practices – in a form which was alleged to be physically more brutal, financially exploitative and psychologically coercive. With the ideological moorings of the revisionist Marxian dogma no more extant, the last decade or so in Bengal has witnessed a gallimaufry of political philosophies.
Though scarred by partition and the religious riots spanning the Great Calcutta killings to the murders in Noakhali (in today’s Bangladesh), yet people of Bengal have prided in the twin pillars of secularism and syncretism. In such an apparently sublime backdrop, the series of riotous events at Deganga (2010), Dhulagarh (2016), Baduria (2017) and Telinipara (2020) to name a few, project a completely different and ominous worldview extant in Bengal – howsoever secretly cocooned, which surfaces and re-surfaces frequently. The big question however is whether or not the ruling regime stumbles to provide the protection of life, limb and property to the manoosh (people)? Or is it that such an apparent failure is a machination employed to gain political mileage, a carefully crafted tactic for securing votes of a specific group of people? Flux of migrants from Bangladesh during 1946-48 and thereafter during 1971 were perhaps unavoidable. Later on this turned out to be a fine practice, something which ensured a steady flow of voters to the ruling regimes. It however perturbed the demographic equilibrium of Bengal. The unbridled human flow from Bangladesh proliferated low-end smuggling and more ominously violent forms of terrorism. In mid-2019, the Islamic State declared the new emir of the ‘Bengal region’, targeting Bengal and Bangladesh. And as one peeps out of the car’s window in broad daylight in the state’s capital Kolkata, it is not unnatural to find agitated mass gatherings of a specific denomination pumping their fists and thumping their chests with a hubba-hubba against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Examining the elections
Nicolas de Condorcet (1743–1794) was a member of a Paris-based intellectual club during the momentous year of the French Revolution in 1789. He was later chased by the revolutionary authorities for being critical of ther actions. He was finally arrested, and died in prison. What however is less known about him is he was a mathematician of no mean calibre. In his Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions (1785), he advocated a particular voting system – the pairwise majority voting. His jury theorem, that the majority of jurors is more likely to be correct than each individual juror, and the probability of a correct majority judgment approaches 1 as the jury size increases, has been applied in social choice theory.
Social choice theory is the study of collective decision processes and procedures. Focal questions of the theory are: How can a group of individuals choose a winning outcome, say an electoral candidate from a given set of options? What are the properties of different voting systems? When is a voting system democratic? How can a collective, viz. electorate, arrive at coherent collective preferences or judgments on some issues, on the basis of its members’ individual preferences or judgments? Pioneered in the 18th century by Nicolas de Condorcet and Jean-Charles de Borda and in the 19th century by Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll, social choice theory accelerated in the 20th century with the works of Kenneth Arrow, Amartya Sen, and Duncan Black.
In this scenario, it is germane to throw light on the Condorcet’s paradox. It is the observation that majority preferences can be ‘irrational’ even when individual preferences are ‘rational’.
“Democracy, by which I shall mean collective self-rule, enjoys extraordinary legitimacy in today’s world”, writes Mark E Warren in the chapter ‘Democracy and the State’ in the Oxford Handbook of Political Science. Warren states that the citizens of well-functioning democracies enjoy greater freedom, wealth, and human development than citizens of non-democracies, and they experience less violence, deprivation, and domination. He further notes that in the last two decades of the 20th century, electoral democracies have come to encompass a majority of the world’s population.
Gerald Pomper aptly writes that “popular elections are generally assumed to be the crucial element of democratic governments, but the significance of elections is so widely assumed that it is rarely examined.”( The Concept of Elections in Political Theory, The Review of Politics, Vol. 29, No. 4, 1967, pp. 478-491). Among political behaviour, the study of voting behaviour has occupied a central position. With the advent of the first public opinion polls in the 1930s, it became possible to research voting choices at the level of the individual voter. However, according to many observers, over two decades of behavioural research failed to establish any law of political behaviour.
The concept of “chaos” as a mathematical technique is a fairly recent development, affirms D G Saari. Using chaos theory however, we now understand how and why deterministic systems admit what appears to be highly random behaviour. Apart from physical and biological systems, chaos theory has also been applied to social sciences. Chaotic analysis has been used to predict election results in Greece (Hanias and Magafas, Journal of Engineering Science and Technology Review, 2011). The authors point out that the system is deterministically chaotic. They assert that the election system is a complex multi-variable system with strong inter-relation between variables. For the Greek case, it was seen that the smaller parties are more robust to keep their voters but on the other hand they cannot adapt changes as the larger parties do.
As a general principle, voting action is determined by a totality of factors, opines M Visser in his paper titled “Five theories of voting action”. Visser writes that there is a constant interaction between the various factors which guide the voting decision. Consequently, the vote may be conceived of as a field determined action. Since the field exists of the person and the environment as he sees it, it becomes crucial to uncover the person’s subjective experience of both himself and his surroundings. In this field determining voting action cognitive and motivational variables continuously interact. Thus the field, continues Visser, has a certain cognitive structure, depending upon the number of elements in the field which the voter sees.
As elements of the socio-political field one may consider party leaders and candidates, party images, party performances in government or opposition, and elements of the person’s social environment with significance for his voting choice – political actions and opinions of groups to which the voter belongs or identifies himself with.
Notwithstanding the intricacies of the theoretical framework regarding elections, some generalisations/inferences could possibly be offered in Bengal’s case as the state and its people plunge into another electoral contest in 2021 within the democratic structure.
First, the electorate in Bengal has broken the fetters of stagnation, quite visibly in 2011. Furthermore, it would be far from political sagacity to undermine the culture of rebelliousness so prevalent among the Bengali people. If fresh political alternatives come up, with of course strong organisational and leadership support, as is visible of late, the people of Bengal may not shy away from gathering around that choice.
However, even for the politically uninitiated in Bengal, it is no secret that whichever political group attempts to woo the Bengalis, they would do a world of good to themselves if they remember the fundamental issue about the Bengali electorate: that the Bengali on or off the street loves freedom the most – freedom to eat, freedom to read and think, freedom to write and watch films of his choice, and of course, freedom to worship.
1: The author is a Civil Service officer under the Ministry of Defence, Government of India. He has published extensively in national and international outlets on politics, security, foreign policy, history and physics. Any opinion expressed in this article is of his own.
By Dr. Uddipan Mukherjee from Kolkata