ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

2013 Panchayat Elections in West Bengal - A Role Reversal?

Kumar Rana (kumar@pratichi.org) is with the Pratichi Institute, Kolkata

The Panchayat elections being held, currently, in West Bengal are witnessing a more virulent form of ruling class absolutism than that was prevalent during Left Front rule. If the Left Front used to disallow any electoral opposition in order to consolidate their power, the present day ruling Trinamul does the same to an even greater extent – as it seeks to reverse gains of social justice and redistribution in rural Bengal. 

The bloodbath continues in rural Bengal as Panchayat elections are being held. About a dozen lives have already been sacrificed and, in all likelihood, there is more to follow. Only the third of the five phased elections to the Panchayati Raj institutions in West Bengal is over and rural West Bengal is rife with political violence. Even in areas where polling is over, carnages, beating, eviction and partisan clashes continue. These clashes are not just between the ruling Trinamul Congress and the opposition Left Front or Congress, but no less between the rival groups of the Trinamul itself, and as it appears, in most cases it is the opposition – the left parties, Congress and “unofficial” Trinamul groups which are at the receiving end of rampant violence. What could be a mundane element of practicing democracy – villagers electing their own local government to work within their reach – has become an event of manifest coercion for establishing absolute partisan control, particularly by the Trinamul Congress.

The Birbhum district president of the Trinamul Congress, Anubrata Mondol, for example, urged his supporters from a public meeting not to allow the opposition to field candidates (Anandabazar Patrika, June 3, 2013). He also called upon his supporters to hurl “bombs at the police if they try to protect the Trinamul dissenters”.[1] Another Trinamul leader, actor turned member of Parliament, Tapas Paul, could not restrain himself from advising with dramatic fury his supporters to teach the supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) a lesson: “jutiye lamba kore din… keliye soja kore din” (“beat sense into them with your shoes…straighten them out with a thrashing”).[2] Another Trinamul leader, Monirul Islam has threatened to behead a Congress leader.[3] These are a thin sample of the mounds of terrorising statements that have been made by the leaders of the ruling party on many occasions in the recent times.

The results of such calls for “partisan cleansing” are clearly evident. In about 14% of the constituencies, the Trinamul Congress won uncontested as the opposition could not even nominate its candidates, denying the people their right to choose.. Also, it’s common knowledge that in the first three phases of the elections, the people in many of the constituencies were either not allowed to vote or were coerced to vote for the ruling party. On the other hand, the CPI(M), whose political organisational skill and achievements has been noted by long time observers, appears to have been reduced to a timid organisation, something foreign to its political culture developed through its being in power for three and half decades. Of course, the CPI(M) has appealed to the people to offer mass-resistance to the terror unleashed by the ruling party in collaboration with the state administration, but such an appeal seems too inadequate to protect the party supporters from dreadful attacks (Anandabazar patrika, July 20, 2013).

It certainly is a cause for concern that the state which had added meaning to Panchayati Raj by holding regular elections since 1978 without a hitch, had to now invoke judicial intervention to complete the electoral process. But, are these gross violations of democratic rights something absolutely unknown to West Bengal? Was democracy completely safe during the Left rule? How was it in the Panchayat elections in 2003, that 7000 seats were won uncontested?[4] Why, despite a positive move in the 1980s towards strengthening the local governments through decentralised planning and implementations, the state government followed a reverse tack, turning the Panchayats into mere local level bureaucratic accessories (Majumdar 2009)? The present threat to democracy that has taken a vulgar form in West Bengal, has much deeper roots (Bhattacharya 2009), to which the rise of the Trinamul Congress is also linked. It was perhaps the very collapse of the movement for decentralisation, a positive political action towards empowering the people at grass root level, which led to the nurturing of a culture of political absolutism in the state. Such practices of absolutism was blatantly manifest in the events of Singur (2006), Nandigram (2007) and Lalgarh (2008), which was responded to by a massive protest by the rural people in the state rallying around the Trinamul Congress. The anti-absolutist mobilisation broke the myth of the Left Front’s invincibility. In the Panchayat elections in 2008, the Left got a real taste of plebian opposition when its vote share dropped to 52% from previous highs, which touched even close to 90%. 

One wonders how despite growing inequality between classes – which is an all-India phenomenon in the time of neoliberal capitalism – the Left maintained its regime in West Bengal undefeated for three and half decades (Pal, Ghosh 2007, Chattopadhyay 2005).  Was it “scientific rigging” that the opposition parties had been alleging? Or, was it some sort of class collaboration whereby the rural elites were restored to power and the rural poor’s loyalty was ensured through an unwritten contract of economic survival – through land patta, public doles under various schemes?

As a field level research-activist I offer the second argument – that the continuing vulnerability of the rural poor and the regaining of power of the rural elites was the principal factor behind the left’s mythical invincibility. The Left truly ignored the poor at both political and societal levels, where not enough opportunities were created for them to take part in their own capability building. It did not create enough opportunities for education for all even after three decades of uninterrupted rule.

Studies show that it is the poor, constituted mainly of dalits, adivasis and Muslims, who face the most severe discriminations in education and health.[5]  This neglect resulted in discontinuing the process of decentralised planning, though it was initiated as a pioneering pro-people movement in the 1980s in the then Medinipur district.[6] Ajit Narayan Bose, who played a key role in designing this movement, points at the socio-political factors responsible for the collapse of this movement in West Bengal:

…absolute lack of response … by any Zilla Parishad outside Midnapore to implement this programme of village planning by villagers. It appears that it is not possible for either the potential "Trustees" or the existing party leadership to be enthusiastic about enabling the villagers to prepare their own plan. … The extent of elitism as manifested in the disbelief in the ability of the rural poor for self-reliant activities appears to be very deep among leaders of all political parties whether in power or striving to be in power. This disbelief may be the basis of their ‘bad faith’ that unless they remain perpetually in power the interests of the poor cannot be served. [7]

Such disbelief and lack of enthusiasm did not stop there; it “quickly got developed into deep hostility leading them to surreptitiously stop the process barely within two years from its initiation” (ibid).

Of course, decentralised planning was not the only solution of the state’s enormous economic and social problems linked with national as well as global policies and affairs. But, what is important here is the rejection of a moral belief – the possibility of the common people’s taking the onus of their own development – that led to the consolidation of power in the hands of rural elite and shutting down the doors of imagination for alternative modes of development.

With growing urban-rural and rural-rural inequality the most vulnerable sections of the society, which had started to believe in self- empowerment through the pro-poor movements such as land reform and constitution of the local self governments, rather quickly became helplessly dependent on governmental doles distributed under the guardianship of the party, the leadership of which was no more in the hands of the so called “declassed”. Poverty of imagination, owing, at least partially, to a disjunction of the leaders who cherished their caste Hindu background, with the larger section of the people constituted of the lower caste and Muslim background, made room for public policies geared exclusively to growth driven by big capital.

However, the promise of industrialisation by the Left Front turned out to be mere lip service, while the social security programmes covering food (Bhattacharya & Rana 2008, Rana 2011), employment, education and health[8] were implemented half-heartedly. This led to:  (a) growing impoverishment among rural population reflected in the increased share of agricultural labourers among the workers,[9] (b) reversal of land reform that was reported in the West Bengal Human Development Report[10], responsible for preventing the rural surplus from getting re-invested, and (c) large number of outmigration of the rural youth in search of employment.

It was the failure of the Left Front, read the CPI(M), to resolve this contradiction, sharpened particularly in the new millennium, that led to its dislodging from power. It lost support, at least partially, of the agricultural labourers, its main ally. The rural elite, upper caste Hindus and economically advanced, that grabbed the rural left leadership did not lose any time to shift their loyalty. The bike vahini – bike brigade, the main machinist of terror in rural Bengal, is not an invention of Trinamul Congress – it has only added to their ruthlessness and crudity to such an extent that they now don’t even care about the High Court orders prohibiting motor-bike processions. The bike vahini is in fact a creation of the rural surplus, which in absence of reinvestment opportunities found it most convenient to invest in the party so as to plunder public funds. Used to exact loyalty of the people this brigade is now playing a role of a Frankenstein for the Left whose electioneering in the present poll is severely assaulted by the bikers and other such groups armed with lethal weapons on one hand and support from the ruling Trinamul through administrative protection.  

Out-migration of the rural youth has probably played a major role in the shaping of politics in West Bengal. The rural working class youth was not only a strong protective base for the Left Front, but also a countervailing power to the elite leadership. This section, with its inherent class militancy, had the courage to challenge any move perceived by them to be unjust. Now, owing largely to the Left Front’s failure to come to terms with the challenges of rural unemployment and manifest indifference towards implementing the capability enhancing programmes, hundreds and thousands of rural youths are now moving out of the states in search of employment.[11] The absence of a young working class in the villages not only created a physical vacuum but also an ideological fragility: unchallenged rural elites went rampant and politics of absolutism and intolerance found solid ground.

The Panchayat polls of 2013 offers a major lesson not just for the Left Front, but all concerned with political activism. It is the existence of an opposition that guarantees the life of a body polity, and a pursuit of absolutist domination can only invite a tragic destruction. That this is no metaphysical sermonising is evident from hard data. We present here two sets of figures on the Panchayat polls of 2008 and 2013 in two distincts of West Bengal: Table 1 shows areas where the Left Front had exacted absolute majority in 2008; and Table 2 shows areas where the Left had apparently lost much of its political influence under an armed threat of the Maoists during 2007-11, when hundreds of Left Front activists were killed and many more driven out from their homes for shelter.

The first area consists of fertile alluvial plains, where rural surplus makes itself visible through the brick kilns and newly constructed houses, dish antennas, motor cycles, cars and so on. The second area covers parts of the Jangal Mahal and is visibly impoverished. The data presented here is self-explanatory: areas where the Left exercised such absolute control and “won” all or majority of the Panchayat samiti seats in 2008, are precisely those where it could not even field its candidates in 2013. On the other hand, in the Jangal Mahal, which has a long tradition of opposition politics, even though the Left Front enjoyed majority in many of them, it could manage to heal the wounds suffered during the Lalgarh movement and subsequent Maoists’ onslaught on its cadres.

What emerges from the tables is a clear pattern of possible democratic practice and issues to be raised by the opposition but its impossibility due to absolute area-domination. The kind of area-domination that the Left Front had imposed in parts of West Bengal is now being paid back in similar forms: in order to exact absolute loyalty. The Trinamul has physically evicted not only the Left from these places, but also every other forms of opposition to ensure that it “wins” such seats uncontested. Even when some candidates managed to contest in these areas, they are few and far between compared to Jangal Mahal, where, besides the two major parties many others are also in the fray.

Table 1. Results of 2008 election to select Panchayat Samities, where Left Front had absolute domination and pattern of contest in the same in 2013

 

Panchayat Samiti Seats Won in 2008

Panchayat Samiti Seats Contested in 2013

 

TMC

LF

Total Seats

TMC

LF

Total candidates

 

Bolpur-Sriniketan (Birbhum)

0

24

24

24

1

35*

 

Labpur (Birbhum)

5

19

30

32

0

32

 

Ilambazar (Birbhum)

0

19

22

25

0

25

 

Goghat I (Hugli)

0

19

20

20

7

38*

 

Goghat II (Hugli)

0

24

24

25

3

37*

 

Arambagh (Hugli)

0

44

44

45

2

51*

 

Khanakul I (Hugli)

0

36

36

39

0

39

 

Garbeta I (Paschim Medinipur)

0

30

30

33

3

57*

 

Garbeta III (Paschim Medinipur)

0

21

21

21

5

44*

 

Chandrakona II (Paschim Medinipur)

0

16

16

16

2

20*

 

 

* Some of the contestants in these blocks are actually dissidents of Trinamul,    and in most cases the Left Front could not even take the guise of fielding ‘independent’ candidates.

Table 2. Results of elections to Panchayat Samities of Jhargram Sub-division, part of Jangal Mahal where opposition politics had space and the pattern of contest in 2013.

 

Panchayat Samiti Seats Won in 2008

Panchayat Samiti Seats Contested in 2013

Blocks

TMC

LF

Total Seats

TMC

LF

Total Candidates

Sankrail

1

20

21

21

21

51

Nayagram

1

23

24

27

26

69

Gopiballavpur I

0

8

16

17

14

54

Gopiballavpur II

0

15

17

17

10

34

Binpur I

0

11

24

26

20

67

Binpur II

NA

NA

NA

29

26

104

Jamboni

0

14

20

20

19

51

Jhargram

0

21

28

30

25

75

 

Source: 2008 results2013 Contestants

Is it then a mere role reversal? The answer is that it is not exactly one. I had the opportunity to visit some of these areas and found that the main aim of the local Trinamul Congress leaders is not just establishing absolute control, which the Left also had attempted earlier, but to wage a war against the working classes. Trinamul leaders are openly threatening in various public meetings that the land reforms programme of the Left was an “absolute misdeed” and they would “right the wrong by giving back the lands to the original owners”. The character of Left absolutism was clearly different; it emerged from gross misunderstanding of the social contradictions guiding it to a class collaborationist approach instead of transforming the class hatred of the poor into building up their own capabilities of self-rule. By contrast, the Trinamul’s absolutism is a ferocious attempt of fuelling class hatred of the rural elites against the poor. The repeat of history, in this case, is not a farce but a criminal destruction of social justice. The introspection by the mainstream Left, if that exists at all, is far too inadequate to check this rampage not only against the poor but also against all democratic institutions and norms that the people of West Bengal had earned though protracted struggle.

The urgent need is maximum solidarity to fight against this massive destruction looming large in rural West Bengal by uniting all democratic forces, the demand of which is clearly raised in the high percentages of polling defying the violence and terror unleashed by hegemonic power. But will the Left be able to equal this challenge? That is the most important question of the hour.

References:

Bhattacharya, Dwaipayan (2009), “Of Control and Factions: The Changing ‘Party-Society’ in Rural West Bengal”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 9 , Feb. 28

Pal, Parthapratim and Jayati Ghosh (2007),  Inequality in India: A survey of recent trends, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Working Paper No. 45, New York  

Chattopadhyay, Apurba Kumar (2005), “  Distributive Impact of Agricultural Growth in Rural West Bengal” Economic and Political weekly, Vol - XL No. 53, December 31

Majumdar Manabi and Kumar Rana (2012), “In Defence of Public Education:Voices from Bengal”, Economic and Political weekly, vol 46, no 40, October 6

Majumdar, Manabi (2009), “Democracy in Praxis: two non-left gram Panchayats in west Bengal”, Economic and Political Weekly, vol 44 No 9, February 28

Bhattacharya, Dwaipayan and Kumar Rana (2008), “Politics of PDS Anger in West Bengal”, Economic and Political weekly,  vol XLIII, No. 5, February 2

Rana, Kumar (2011), “Food Crisis, Right to Food, and Popular Politics in West Bengal”, in Basu Sibaji Pratim and Geetisha Dasgupta, (eds) Politics in Hunger Regime: Essays on the Right to Food in West Bengal, Frontpage, Kolkata



[1] http://zeenews.india.com/bengali/videos/anubratas-speech_2448.html; the state government’s inaction towards taking action against Mondol has reportedly led the State Election Commission to bring the issue to the Governor’s notice;  http://www.abpananda.newsbullet.in/state/34-more/38911-2013-07-20-16-50-20

[4] Statement of the Secretary, State Election Commission; Business Standard, Kolkata, 11 June, 2013;

[5] See The Pratichi Education Report I, with an Introduction by Amartya Sen, TLM Books in association with Pratichi Trust, Delhi, 2002, The Pratichi Education Report II, with an Introduction by Amartya Sen, Pratichi Trust, Delhi, 2009. Also see Majumdar and Rana (2012)

[6] It was later divided into two – Purba and paschim Medinipur. Bose’s successful experiment was done in Aurai village in Kanthi (Contai) subdivision of the Purba part of the district. 

[7] Bose Ajit Narayan, “Decentralization : Learning from Midnapore, 1980 –2000” dated 15-01-2001, mimeographed.

[8] Pratichi Reports on Education, op. cit. Can also be harvested more at www.pratichi.org.  The Pratichi Health Report, with an introduction by Amartya Sen, TLM Books, in association with Pratichi Trust, Delhi, 2005

[9] Thanks to land reform and other pro-poor programmes there was a trend of decrease, however small, in the share of agricultural labourers to total workers. Between 1971-1981 it came down from 26 percent to 25 percent and between 1981-1991 it stood at 23 percent; but it again rose to 25 percent in 2001 and to 29 percent in 2011. The 2011 figure is the all time in the post-independence period. Source: Census of India, various years.

[10] Government of West begal, West Bengal Human Development Report, Department of Planning, Government of West Bengal, Kolkata, 2004

[11] No data pertaining to the extent of outmigration is available. But, any observer can have an idea of the enormity of the phenomenon by just taking a look into the railway stations and compartments. A New Delhi bound  train from Farakka, of Murshidabad district of West Bengal is popularly known as “labour express” for its passengers are overwhelmingly being the migrant labourers. 

 

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top