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

Local Government in Rural West BengalSubscribe to Local Government in Rural West Bengal

Local Democracy and Clientelism: Implications for Political Stability in Rural West Bengal

This paper examines factors underlying the unusual stability of political power in rural West Bengal, using data pertaining to the functioning of local democracy from a household survey conducted by the authors during 2003-05. It examines patterns of political awareness, participation, distribution of benefits by gram panchayats, and voting across households of varying socio-economic characteristics. The main findings are that (i) political participation was high on average; (ii) within villages panchayat benefits flowed to poor and scheduled caste/scheduled tribe groups on par or better, compared with the rest of the population; (iii) distribution of benefits across villages was biased against those with more landless households; and (iv) the lasting political success of the Left owed partly to a clientelist relationship of the party with the voters, and partly to the gratitude of voters of low socio-economic status arising out of broad-based changes.

The CPI(M) 'Machinery' in West Bengal: Two Village Narratives from Kochbihar and Malda

Although the left parties are to a large extent responsible for the democratic changes that have taken place in rural West Bengal, power remains concentrated in the ruling elite and modifications are required for democratisation to become meaningful. This paper suggests a model for understanding how the Communist Party of India (Marxist) "machinery" functions to secure electoral power and ideological hegemony for the left regime, especially at the panchayat level in everyday village politics. The protean capacity of the party allows changes at the local level in pragmatic ways, serving incompatible interests without being seen as different formations. The CPI(M) is clearly adept in formulating different strategies for different tiers of the panchayat system, calibrating their rivalries. Two village narratives help explore these aspects.

The Coming Crisis in West Bengal

The studies in this special issue on local government and politics in rural West Bengal that were carried out in 2003-06 ask the question, "What explains the extraordinary stability of Left Front rule in West Bengal?". The papers - one based on a large sample quantitative survey across all districts and the others on close ethnographic observation of six purposively selected gram panchayats - find merit in both the explanations suggested in the literature on contemporary West Bengal politics: one, the institutional effectiveness of the structures of rural government and mobilisation of political support built by the Left Front and, two, a form of clientelism in which the Left parties hold their supporters under some sort of permanent dependence. The studies, however, propose several nuanced modifications of the arguments and also offer some new explanations for our consideration. However, several critical events have taken place in West Bengal since 2006 (Nandigram, Singur, the results of the panchayat election of 2008). Is it then possible to shift our perspective and read the results reported in these studies as an answer to a different question? Instead of the question that has been conventionally asked about West Bengal, could we ask: "What are the reasons internal to the institutions of government and politics in rural West Bengal that might endanger the stability of Left Front rule?". This brief introduction to the special issue offers the beginnings of such a reading.

Of Control and Factions: The Changing 'Party-Society' in Rural West Bengal

The changing conditions in two villages of West Bengal - Galsi and Adhata - give a picture of the emerging issues and dynamics of the state's rural political economy. This paper attempts to explain these complexities in the light of the idea of a "party-society". It also shows that the initial impetus of land reforms failed to result in productive investments in agriculture and the marginalised sections feel increasingly alienated from the institutional politics of the party-society

Democracy in Praxis: Two Non-Left Gram Panchayats in West Bengal

Drawing upon a micro-study of two villages in two non-Left gram panchayats in West Bengal, this paper puts one issue in the foreground, namely, the idea and practice of local politics. Using two counter examples to prove a general point about contemporary West Bengal's dominant political tendencies, it argues that the elaborate organisational structure of the (Left) party system, that once proved to be the ruling Left Front's political strength, has now turned out to be a part of its problems. The LF's electoral compulsions have come in the way of its original social mobilisational impulses and programmes. Only recently some signals of mass mobilisation politics have begun looming on the political horizon of the state. It would require a thorough reconfiguring of the relationship between political parties and society - a shift from a party-society to a dynamic and reciprocal link between party and society - in order to transform the existing nature of particularistic politics and build instead an encompassing participatory politics.
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