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The Party and the Panchayats of West Bengal

Despite substantial decentralisation of power through panchayati raj institutions in West Bengal, the presence of an entrenched centralised party in power in the state has meant the use of such institutions as instruments of patronage. Violent battles have invariably taken place during panchayat elections, as these are seen as necessary by all political parties to capture or retain hold over the institutions.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 14, 200817Partha Sarathi Banerjee ( is an independent social science researcher based in Mumbai.The Party and the Panchayats of West BengalPartha Sarathi BanerjeeDespite substantial decentralisation of power through panchayati raj institutions in West Bengal, the presence of an entrenched centralised party in power in the state has meant the use of such institutions as instruments of patronage. Violent battles have invariably taken place during panchayat elections, as these are seen as necessary by all political parties to capture or retain hold over the institutions.The panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) have always been seen as local self-governments, i e, a tool for decen-tralisation of power to the rural people, particularly to the vast poor and marginal sections of the rural society. West Bengal has been a showcase of panchayati decen-tralisation in India, as it is here that the PRIs have been functioning most effec-tively for the last 30 years. But the latest election to the three tier panchayats in this state has left behind a trail of blood that was spilled not only in the rivalry for power between the ruling and the opposi-tion parties, but also in the bloody con-flicts between Communist Party of India Marxist – CPI(M) and Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), both partners of the ruling Left Front. This provokes me to raise questions about the very premise of decentralisation on which the PRIs have been contemplated. A closer look at the rural polity of West Bengal reveals that the apparent success inPRI functioning in the state has indeed accompanied by a greater division among the rural people, leading to bitter rivalry among them and most shockingly, pitting poor against the poor in a society where poor people had a long legacy of united struggles on the basis of the class line. In fact, the class-based polarisation of the rural people has been obfuscated to a great extent since the ascendancy of Left Front in power and the subsequent rejuvenation of the PRIs and instead a party-based division appeared to rule the rural polity where one’s partyiden-tity has become most crucial for his/her life and livelihood. Bloody ElectionsA visit to the Dhuri area of Basanti block in South 24 Parganas district just before the last panchayat elections revealed that several supporters of the RSP party, one of the Left Front constituents, had been evicted from their houses by marauding cadre of theCPI(M), the leader of the Left Front. One of those evicted RSP support-ers commented that he would be able to return to his village along with his family only if the RSP could regain power in the local gram panchayat(GP). TheRSP sup-porters complained that that area had been aRSP stronghold for decades and theCPI(M) had taken control over it just before the 2003 panchayatelections and captured power that year by driving out and terrorising RSP supporters. Since then people had to support the CPI(M) and could not dare to openly rally behind theRSP as the crucial panchayat power was with the former. Since last few months before the 2008 panchayat elec-tions, the RSP supporters began to regroup in the area once again and were trying to consolidate their support base among the people to “recapture” the power from the CPI(M). In the process, one RSP supporter had been killed and several families uprooted by theCPI(M) goons in pre-election clashes, as alleged by theRSP supporters. This was the sce-nario just before the panchayatelections in 2008 and on May 14, the day of elec-tions four people died in that area alone in one of the bloodiest fights between the RSP and the CPI(M) with three of them from a single family of aRSP candidate Rampada Handar. The next day a RSP minister’s house in Basanti was allegedly bombed byCPI(M) goons killing the wife of the minister’s nephew inside the house.A woman member belonging to the minister’s family told reporters on May 19, “None of our husbands can come home. We are living in constant fear of CPI(M) attacks” (The Times of India, May 20, 2008). How have the partners of the same Left Front engaged themselves in such a bitter struggle over panchayat power? If this could happen between two Left Front partners, one can imagine the situation where the ruling and the opposition par-ties are locked in contest for panchayati power in the rural belt of West Bengal. But the main concern must be focused over the fate of the much-trumpeted decentralisation of power in a situation where the parties fight so bitterly for the panchayati power. And that too where supporters of two Left Front parties, both
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 14, 200819such schemes have helped in the growth of a donor-receiver relationship between the party in power and the people at large. This phenomenon is keenly observed by Glyn Williams, The control of development funds for Jawa-har Rozgar Yojana (JRY) and Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) schemes gave (panchayat) members a degree of economic influence beyond that of most landlords, and thus supported them in ful-filling their leadership role. Also, any devel-opment work a member undertook became highly personalised: rather than fulfilment of an objective set of criteria, it was seen by potential beneficiaries as help especially by those among the labouring classes. This is significant in that by requesting help from their (panchayat) members, villagers were using a ‘language of claims’ equivalent to that used by, for example, a tenant request-ing a loan from his landlord. Such requests are indicative of the way in which the whole panchayat system is viewed by many: rather than being an institution in which they actively participate, it is seen as a distributor of personalised benefits [Williams 1999]. He also observes that “more subtle than such outright theft [of panchayat funds], and more commonplace, was the use of panchayat funds to secure political sup-port: a general complaint of all villagers not belonging to the faction of the pancha-yat member was that all development money was being directed exclusively to the member’s friends and supporters…it was only the politically well connected that benefited” (ibid).The Great ParadoxThis style of functioning of the ruling left parties in West Bengal vis-à-vis the pan-chayats seems to a great extent responsi-ble for the tension in the rural polity over the control or capture of power. The bene-fits distributed through the panchayats have been significant to the lives of the rural poor and considering the vast number of landless and marginal farmers and prevalence of hunger in the Bengal countryside,1 these benefits crucially affect vast majority of the rural population, comprising principally the socially backward SC-ST and Muslim communi-ties.2 It is perhaps a great paradox in the Bengal experience that more the power is decentralised to the panchayats, i e, more the funds are being spent through the PRIs, the greater becomes the power of the party controlling the panchayats to influ-ence the lives and livelihood of the people, particularly the backward sections of it. As the benefits distributed through the PRIs, except funds meant for infrastruc-tural development works, are meant for individual beneficiaries, the obvious trend in a highly politically-divided society would be to utilise panchayat funds to cater to the supporters of the party in power in a particular panchayat. So much so that the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) audit report mentioned a case where 774 gram panchayats in West Bengal spent Rs 2.4 million on building houses under Indira Awas Yojana in 2002-03, but not a single beneficiary was from below poverty line (BPL) category though the project was specifically designed for them.3 Finally, the tool for the decentralisation of power seems to have turned into its opposite by helping centralisation of power instead. In the rural polity of West Bengal, such practice of patronising a party’s own sup-port base by blatant (mis)use of public funds has been somewhat legitimised dur-ing the long Left Front rule. Subsequently almost all the parties coming to panchay-ati power follow suit. In the process, rural people are readily divided between two groups, one receiving favours and benefits from the panchayats and the other being discriminated against. As the condition to get panchayatbenefits primarily depends on the proximity of a person with the party in panchayati power, people tend to rally behind the local rulers, willingly or unwillingly. But the party cannot satiate the demands of all the deserving people as the funds are generally meant for a few. Rather it tries to satisfy its own supporters even when they are better off than others. So the non-receivers of such benefits wait for the next panchayat elections to get rid of the present ruling party and bring another party in running power that would look after their interests. That is why the people in the traditional strong-hold of RSP in the Basanti area turned towards the CPI(M) once the latter could capture power in 2003 and regrouped against the same party before the 2008 panchayat elections. The political parties contending for state power in West Bengal have high stakesinthe capture and control of such power, as the latter is crucial to clinch electoral victory in the vast countryside that finally determines who will rule the state after the next assembly elections. Thus the battle to gain supremacy in state politics degenerates into prior battles to capture power in the panchayats. The rural subalterns, having high stakes in the panchayats and deeply divided over party affiliations, are drawn in these battles and become victims of party-led violence. In fact, they turn into fighters for this or that party, fight against each other and kill their class-brethren, burn-ing houses, raping women and what not. Thus the sacrosanct institutions of pan-chayat have turned into tools in the hands of the power-mongers to mobilise rural people in their quest for more power and ultimate supremacy in the state politics. Notwithstanding the process of democratisation in the rural society initiated by thePRIs, these institutions seem too vulnerable to fall victim to party bias (in some other state it may be caste or class bias), apart from personal corruption. The political usurpation of panchayati power by the party may be more fatal than the economic usurpation of panchayati funds as evident in the case of West Bengal. Notes1“NSS data indicates that the proportion of landless rural households in West Bengal increased from 39.6 per cent in 1987-88 to 49.8 per cent in 1999-2000”, according to Human Development Report 2004, published by the government of West Bengal. The mariginal farmers (owning land below 1 hectare) are estimated 80.44 per cent of the total cultivators in 2000, according toDistrict Statistical Handbook, published by BAES, West Bengal government. 2 These communities comprise more than three- fourths of the state’s rural population who consti-tute “the three poorest groups in rural Bengal”, according to the Human Development Report 2004. 3 Quoted by Rajat Roy in‘Endemic Hunger in West Bengal’,Economic & Political Weekly, May 3, 2008.ReferencesBhattacharya, Harihar (1998): Micro Foundations of Bengal Communism, Ajanta Books International, Delhi, pp 179-80. Bhattacharya, Moitree (2002): Panchayati Raj in West Bengal…, Manak Publication, New Delhi.Williams, Glyn (1999): ‘Panchayati Raj and the Changing Micro Politics of West Bengal’ in Roogaly Ben et al (eds), Sonar Bangla? Sage Publi-cation, New Delhi.

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