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Suffrage in West Bengal

from appearing for a number of all-India tests owing to clash of dates. Suffrage in West Bengal Even as the Election Commission put its supposedly best foot forward in conducting with rigour and discipline the recent elections spread over five phases in West Bengal, the Left Front secured a massive victory. The victory belied several suppositions and notions, especially those that prevailed with regard to

Commantary

Suffrage in West Bengal

Even as the Election Commission put its supposedly best foot forward in conducting with rigour and discipline the recent elections spread over five phases in West Bengal, the Left Front secured a massive victory. The victory belied several suppositions and notions, especially those that prevailed with regard to “bogus” voters and anti-incumbency. Notwithstanding its impressive victory, the verdict also has the necessary warnings, implying that the Left Front must work anew in pursuing policies that seek the ultimate benefit of

all sections of the populace.

AM

E
lections to the legislative assemblies have recently concluded in Assam, Kerala, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. For a number of reasons, the poll in West Bengal became the centrepiece of attention. Unlike in the case of the four other states, the Election Commission (EC) decided to stagger the electoral process in West Bengal over five fairly dispersed dates. The entire process, beginning with the EC’s formal announcement of the poll procedures till the counting of votes, therefore stretched to almost two months. The state government was in effect immobilised fromroughly the fourth week of March till the third week of May. Administration in the state came almost to a standstill. The state authorities, as per electoral rules, had to freeze all activities except routine ones. They were not entitled to either announce or undertake new projects. Any such initiatives depended on the EC’s discretion. The latter however was in no position to provide surrogate administration; the consequence was an administrative vacuum in the state for nearly one-sixth of the year.

Consider the situation that arose. One example should suffice. Because of the absence of rain in the preceding six months, there was an acute shortage of water in a number of districts in West Bengal. Particular areas were more badly affected; it was crucially important to sink new tube wells in these areas. The state administration was however temporarily bereft of the power to take and implement decisions on its own; it had to seek the necessary permission from the EC. In several instances, appeals to the EC found themselves trapped in a bureaucratic maze. Even when a benign nod finally came from the EC, the actual work was awesomely delayed, resulting in great distress to the people. To quote another example: in one area, a cholera epidemic broke out, some additional ameliorative measures were needed beyond what the state health department was normally equipped to deliver. Again, introduction of such measures had to await the magnanimity of the election authorities, with the final decision resting in New Delhi.

Consider some other difficulties that ensued in the wake of the EC’s decision to spread the state poll over a near twomonth span. Since most school and college examinations take place during this season, the examination schedules were in total disarray. School and college buildings – and university campuses too – were taken over for purposes of conducting the elections, including the accommodation of poll personnel and police and paramilitary forces imported from outside the state. Even such important premises like the National Library were not spared. Several national level tests are held about this time for entry into, for instance, administrative services, banks and management courses. With the forced rescheduling of examinations held under the state’s educational system, aspiring candidates from the state were prevented from appearing for a number of all-India tests owing to clash of dates.

EC’s DirectivesEC’s DirectivesEC’s DirectivesEC’s DirectivesEC’s Directives

For these two months, thus, the state was virtually under the control of the EC. Imported police and para-military personnel penetrated all parts of the state; route marches by them were organised in every constituency, sometimes twice a day. Observers ordered peremptory raids on private houses as well as party offices, ostensibly in search of arms and objectionable material. In most instances, these raids yielded nothing, but generated an atmosphere of uncertainty all over the state.

The two-month show of the EC, estimates suggest, would cost the state government around Rs 120 crore. But leave that financial accounting aside. For years on end, West Bengal, as ministry of home affairs data indicate, has about the best law and order record in the country. The EC obviously felt, or was made to feel, otherwise. All previous elections in the state, it was persuaded to suspect, were a farce; this time it must be otherwise; the poll in West Bengal must be organised with as much rigour as seen in the elections in Bihar last year. As far as law and order is concerned, the conditions obtaining in Bihar and West Bengal are, the EC was made to believe, similar, the no-nonsense model tried out in Bihar must be applied in West Bengal too. This notion of an identical state of affairs with respect to law and order in the two states was implanted in the psyche of the EC with great zeal by a number of agencies. The media in the state led the pack: the fact of a particular political party uninterruptedly winning elections after elections in a particular state was for them difficult to stomach; it was also, in their opinion, against the spirit of democracy. The media readily endorsed allegations that parties in opposition had been lodging to the effect that polls in West Bengal were vitiated by extraordinarily corrupt practices at all levels. Impressed by such views, the EC improvised a set of guidelines for itself on the basis of which it decided to judge the purity of the election process. These included, inter alia, the following: (a) a state where voter registration as a proportion of the state’s

Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006

population is higher than the national average is likely to carry a relatively higher load of bogus voters; (b) in case the proportion of votes cast to the aggregate number of votes registered in a constituency or for a particular polling station happen to be higher than national average, the poll in this constituency or polling station should be subjected to close scrutiny; and (c) similarly, if in a constituency or a polling booth, a candidate received as high as 85 to 90 per cent or more of the votes cast, the count must be subjected to rigorous checks and rechecks, and, if necessary, a re-poll ordered.

Each of these presumption-loaded guidelines can be questioned. Actual participation in the election process is a function of the level of political awareness. It would be fatuous to assume that this awareness is evenly spread in the country. It baffles commonsense why, in case the national average of voter registration is low, the registration in a particular state should not deviate from that average. In case political awareness in the state is relatively high, the proportion of registration too would be relatively high. This would be equally true for actual poll participation too. Should in constituency after constituency in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, average votes cast be below 50 per cent of total valid votes, it does not follow that that norm should apply in the case of West Bengal too. Where political consciousness of the people is relatively high, both voter registration and poll participation are bound to be on the high side. The percentage of polling has been traditionally considerably higher – in the range of between 70 and 80 per cent – in West Bengal compared to what it is in the northern states. In fact, in the city of Kolkata itself, constituencies where Bengali-speaking voters predominate, the proportion of both voter registration and poll participation is pronouncedly higher than in constituencies where non-Bengalis constitute the majority.

It is equally illogical to assume it to be against nature if, out of every 1,000 votes cast in a particular polling station, as many as 950 or thereabouts have been cast in favour of one candidate. Way back in 1952, when elections were held for the first Lok Sabha, Ravi Narayan Reddy, the candidate for the Communist Party of India in a Telangana constituency in Andhra Pradesh, captured 93 per cent of the total votes cast. Were the people en masse to prefer a particular candidate in an area, it would be no indulgement in unfair practice if they vote en masse for him or her.

The presumptions were uncalled for but, in organising this year’s poll in West Bengal, the EC leaned on them. As already mentioned, what must have contributed to its mindset was the data that a particular political combination – the Left Front – had kept winning the elections in the state, poll after poll, over a period stretching to close to three decades. Psephologists and political scientists here joined the band of discontents. In their view, in every democracy anti-incumbency is a most important ingredient in a voter’s decision-making; however, in West Bengal, this factor has not at all come into the picture and the Left Front has continued to win election after election. This was supposed to be not only most curious, but, again, “against nature”. The sedulous suggestion was readily forthcoming, the elections in the state were vitiated in the past by massive rigging organised by the Left Front with the active cooperation of junior-grade government employees and policemen; this perfidy was compounded by the passivity of the state’s senior civil servants and police officials.

The EC was clearly under pressure from political parties in the opposition. It was also befuddled by the pontifications of a section of psephologists and political scientists. A few bureaucrats, who had served in the state and whose amour propre was perhaps hurt by some functionaries of the Left Front, also chimed in. The EC’s views might have been further coloured by the subjective judgment of some of its own observers who had been deputed to the state on election duty on past occasions: they perhaps felt uncomfortable in a milieu which was far different from what they were used to elsewhere in the country; and anything which did not tally with their experience aroused their suspicion.

‘Big Brother’ Surveillance‘Big Brother’ Surveillance‘Big Brother’ Surveillance‘Big Brother’ Surveillance‘Big Brother’ Surveillance

Whatever the considerations the EC chose to bring to bear, the upshot was to organise this year’s poll in West Bengal under conditions of severe surveillance. All state government employees, including police personnel, were excluded from participation in the electoral process and substituted by officials and other personnel from other states as well as from the union government. State police personnel were similarly put out to grass; security forces were inducted from other states supplemented by paramilitary personnel drawn from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security Force (BSF) and similar categories. Imported personnel, it was taken for granted, would not be afflicted by the kind of political bias personnel in the service of the government of West Bengal are suspected to harbour; it was not politeness to ask whether such imported personnel might not be susceptible to biases of a different nature.

A bizarre situation was thereby created. For about two months, the state was under a condition of siege and normal administration came to a surcease. Paramilitary personnel imported from other parts of the country fanned out to every district. They did not know the local language and sometimes, conceivably quite unintentionally, got involved in far-from-happy incidents with local residents. The EC’s observers often behaved like semi-czars and issued peremptory instructions, including orders of arrest, causing inconvenience and harassment to ordinary citizens and political parties alike. Conditions in some places resembled what obtained during Indira Gandhi’s notorious Emergency. A question inevitably formed on the lips of a wide section of the electorate: have things come to such a passé that only a quasi-military type of poll arrangements could make the country safe for democracy?

The staggering of the poll over five days a la Bihar was regarded by quarters close to the EC as a master stroke to foil the plans on the part of roaming armed gangs to capture booths and terrorise the voters. Election campaigns had to be organised by the candidates and their parties under the strictest vigil of EC officials. Graffiti, allowed in other states, were banned in West Bengal. Scrawling on the wall is a quick and cheap way of establishing communion between candidates and the electorate who continue to be preponderantly poor and cannot afford newspapers, radio or television. The EC in a sense therefore took a conscious decision to discriminate against the poorer sections of the electorate. Other exuberances usually associated with poll campaigns were also disfavoured. Elections in the ambience of West Bengal were till now a joyous celebration of democracy: this time the EC was determined to smother that joy.

Impressive TurnoutImpressive TurnoutImpressive TurnoutImpressive TurnoutImpressive Turnout

The five-day elections passed off without incident. While there was a general sense of resentment against the claustrophobic conditions the EC had created,

Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006 people came out in massive numbers to vote. In fact, votes cast as a percentage of total votes in the electoral rolls were 7 per cent higher this time compared to the 1996 assembly elections.

Each of the suspicions the EC laboured under has been disproved by the poll outcome. Despite the ruthless purge of electoral rolls and the statewide ‘bandobast’ against rigging and other electoral constituencies, in several constituencies the proportion of votes cast has been as high as 85 to 90 per cent. Cases too have been come across where, in individual constituencies, 90 per cent of the votes cast have gone to one particular candidate, and, in individual booths, out of every 1,000 votes cast, as many as 950 have been cast for a particular candidate. In such cases, the EC considered it its duty to sift carefully the poll records, but in no instance it has felt impelled to order a re-poll. Along with the media, the parties in the opposition have been forced to acknowledge that the polls have been free and fair and they have no complaints. One theory doing the rounds is that the reason voter participation has been strikingly high this year is the resentment caused by the presumptuousness of the EC and its zeal in creating a near-emergency situation in the state – despite the absence of any objective factors to justify its presumptions.

Notwithstanding the EC’s putting its supposedly best foot forward, the Left Front has, this time too, won a massive victory, winning more than a three-quarters majority. It has captured 36 more seatsthan in 2001 and obtained more than 50 per cent of the votes cast as against its tally of 48 per cent last time. The poll results are consequently a disappointment as much for the opposition parties as for some sections of performing psephologists.

In the face of this experience, perhaps the EC itself will be in an introspective mood. A few observations made by the chief election commissioner (CEC) seem to suggest that he already feels the need for such rethinking. India is a huge, complex country. A single model of electoral behaviour is most illsuited to capture the complexities of the land and its people. To proceed on the basis of hearsay and preconceived notions can only leave the EC with egg on its face.

Post-ElectionsPost-ElectionsPost-ElectionsPost-ElectionsPost-Elections

Finally, it is important that the results of the elections in the state are examined with dispassion and an objective frame of mind. One feels sorry for the opposition parties. The pathetic faith they reposed on the EC to do the job for them has proved self-defeating. The West Bengal electorate does not consist of fools; they expect from the opposition which aspires to come to power to present a coherent alternative programme. Neither the Congress nor the Trinamool Congress had any; they had no prescriptions for the state barring the shouting about rigged polls. Even had the Congress and the Trinamool Congress combined to fight the poll as in 2001, they might have perhaps obtained another 40 seats, the Left Front would still have enjoyed a comfortable victory. This year’s poll proved the point once more: in the radical climate of West Bengal, the BJP’s lotus is unlikely to bloom in the foreseeable future.

At the other end, the Left Front has retained its overwhelming support base amongst the state’s rural poor, including in the tribal belt. In a few districts such as Burdwan and Hooghly, significant sections of the middle peasantry too have opted for the Front. The Front also by and large continues to enjoy the confidence of the organised working class as well as of major segments of the urban poor and lower middle classes. Class alignments in the state therefore for the present remain more or less frozen. The scale of its victory could induce the Left Front into a kind of euphoria. It is however relevant to draw attention to a number of emerging facts:

  • (a) While the Front has registered a major triumph in this year’s poll, it is not an unprecedented achievement. For example, in 1987 the Front captured 251 of the 294 seats in the assembly; this time, the tally has been only 235. And there have been other occasions too in the past when the Front obtained more than 50 per cent of the total votes cast.
  • (b) A large proportion of the Front government’s efforts and resources has over the past five years been expended to improve the infrastructure in and around Kolkata, including for the establishment of luxury facilities which could seduce the upper-class mind, especially industry circles. This apparently pro-rich and pro-big industry bias in the state government’s policies has borne little fruit though in electoral terms. The Front actually has won in 2006 a lesser number of seats in Kolkata than it did in the past. The areas where civic improvements
  • such as flyovers, sleek modern roads, shopping plazas and suchlike are concentrated continue to vote with a vengeance against the Left Front. The Front therefore faces a dilemma: to increase further the outlay on luxury facilities might fail to yield electoral dividends, while the relative curtailment of outlay intended for the poor could lead to a rapid erosion of its “safe” vote bank.

  • (c) The issue of conversion, at state initiative, of arable land for commercial exploitation, the poll results suggest, should be handled with some circumspection. In the rural belt of South 24 Parganas, the Left Front lost in just a single constituency, Bhangar, partly because of the involvement of this location in the controversy. Similarly, while the Front made a clean sweep of the rest of the seats in the district of Howrah, it failed to win in two constituencies where the issue of land sales had cropped up.
  • (d) The state government has apparently made up its mind to pursue a vigorous programme of generally capital-intensive industrial growth with focus on the IT industry. It has, simultaneously, made explicit its determination to make the state more investor-friendly. The state administration, it follows, would from now on allocate a relatively higher proportion of its resources in the pursuit of these goals. What impact such a policy is likely to have on the life and living of close to seven million unemployed in the state remains an open question. The surprise defeat of the state labour minister, along with the loss of a number of seats on the fringes of Kolkata, should provide some sort of a warning. It is possible to trace an undercurrent of resentment at the resulting bias
  • – howsoever unintentional – for laboureconomising industrialisation; there is similar disquiet over hasty handing over of lush agricultural land either for “contract farming” or to fly-by-night adventurers from other shores.

    (e) Above all, the mandate the Left Front has won, in the view of a vast number of its rank and file, is a mandate for Left principles. Any deviation from these principles, such as a diminution of the role of the public sector in the development agenda, could meet with fierce internal resistance. The seventh Left Front government therefore must continuously watch its steps.

    l:l

    Email: ashok3@vsnl.net

    Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006

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