AS OUR CAR RACED ALONG A ROAD flanked by fish farms—bheris, in Bengali—we passed gangs of young men scattered all along the way. They stepped into the middle of the road, flagging down trucks, tempos and autorickshaws to demand money—ostensibly to celebrate Saraswati Puja, which was just days away, on 8 February. “They decide the chanda”—donation—“and you simply have to pay up,” Umesh Singh, the driver ferrying me from Kolkata to the town of Basirhat, in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, told me. “There is no bargaining with them.” Our car, however, went on unimpeded, because Singh had stuck onto the windshield a sign with “Press” scrawled boldly across it.
Basirhat lies about a three-hour drive east of Kolkata, near the Bangladesh border. Our journey there was taking us through territory dominated by the Trinamool Congress, or TMC, which ascended to power in West Bengal with a staggering victory in the state-assembly election in 2011, ending 34 years of uninterrupted rule by the Left Front, an alliance of leftist parties dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The roadside chandas, Singh told me, were not novelties of TMC rule, having also been a regular feature of the Left Front years. “Extortions by local clubs in towns and villages on such religious occasions happened even then,” he explained. “The difference now is the higher level of aggression.”
The chandas were just one sign of a thread that binds the present and the past in West Bengal: a stubborn political culture of lawlessness and violence. None of the places we passed were outside the control of the state, and yet young men were allowed to extort money from drivers at will. Such brazenness, as any resident of West Bengal will tell you, comes from an understanding between activists on the ground and politicians in the seats of electoral power: that the former receive patronage and be allowed to defy the law, in return for stamping out any opposition and thus protecting the ruling party’s power. This dynamic was established by the Left Front, and played a big role in the alliance staying in power for as long as it did. But despite the Left Front’s suppression of challengers, in 2011 an electorate tired of economic and political stagnation was seduced by the TMC’s promise of poriborton, or transformation, and gave the party 184 of 294 seats in the state assembly, reducing the Left Front’s total to a dismal 62. Through the TMC’s rise, its supporters had themselves endured countless attacks from supporters of the Left Front, and many in West Bengal had hoped that the change of regime would bring an end to the lawlessness and political suppression. Here before us, however, was evidence that there had been no such thing.