West Bengal Panchayat Elections

Elections in West Bengal are politically charged affairs. The recently concluded Panchayati Raj elections were probably more so than usual. The current round of polls, the 7th since the first local government elections in 1978, is significant because it comes after a string of incidents in West Bengal. In the last three years issues like land acquisition (including the violent agitations in Singur and Nandigram), the PDS scam, outbreak of Bird-flu, the bungled Rizwan-ur-Rehman case, and the bundling out of Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen have rocked the state. Adding to the volatile mix is the state government’s controversial industrialization policy, of which Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is the most fervent cheerleader. This is the first time in the Left Front’s 31-year-rule that so much dissent has been publicly articulated in their bastion of rural Bengal. No wonder a nervous CPI (M), in the run up to the polls, was trying to protect its turf amid bickering with its own coalition partners and a reinvigorated opposition.   

The Panchayat polls were held in three phases on May 11, 14 and 18 for the three tier system: Gram Panchayats  (GP) being the lowest representing a cluster of villages, Panchayat Samity (PS) covering a block and the apex Zilla Parishad (ZP) at the district level. The Left Front, specifically the CPI (M), suffered a jolt in its bastion of rural Bengal with the opposition winning 4 of the 17 ZPs in West Bengal. The Congress retained the Malda ZP but lost in Murshidabad, its stronghold which went to the Left Front (LF). But it made up for its loss by wresting North Dinajpur from the Left. Meanwhile the Left lost East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas to the Trinamool Congress and retained North 24 Parganas by a thin margin. The tally of the LF decreased from 15 district councils in 2003 to 13 in 2008. The LF performed strongest in a broad swathe across South and central West Bengal and the districts of Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri in the North. The district that the Left lost, East Medinipur, witnessed a violent agitation against land acquisition in Nandigram. The TMC was the biggest gainer this time round as it won 2 ZPs where it had drawn a blank in 2003.

In panchayat samities the Left won 183 against a combined opposition tally of 137, down 30 per cent as compared to its 2003 tally where it won 285 samities. The TMC gained the most by winning 79 samities up from 12 in 2003. There are a total of 8,798 panchayat samities and 41,516 gram panchayat seats.   

The results indicate chinks in the Left’s armour, but it would be hasty to jump to the conclusion that it is a rejection of the CPI (M)’s industrialization policy because it has posted big victories in other districts which have also witnessed land-acquisition: In West Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia and Burdhaman the Left has improved its 2003 tally.                   

To understand why the Panchayat elections are so important it is necessary to understand how the system was introduced and how it functions. West Bengal was the first state to start the exercise of handing over implementation and maintenance of rural projects to elected bodies of local self-government in 1978. Since then elections to three-tier system have been held on a regular basis every five years. The ruling Left Front, a coalition of left parties of which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the major partner, has won an overall majority in every election.

The period when Panchayat raj was formally instituted corresponds to the beginning of LF rule in West Bengal. In 1977, when the LF assumed office the CPI (M) had almost no network or cadres in rural West Bengal. Its urban support base was restricted mainly to Kolkata. The party realized that if they had to stay in power they had to expand in the rural hinterlands. They did this by declaring that jotdars (middle and big peasants) were now welcome to join the party since their interests were not opposed to the Party’s. Hitherto the party had sided with the poor and landless peasants. This action resulted in the jotdars deserting the congress en masse and joining the CPI (M) thus changing its character from a party representing the landless and rural poor to one that represented the interests of the rural elite. At the same time it expanded the party’s base by allowing it to sink deep roots in rural West Bengal. In the 1978 and 1983 elections only 7 per cent and 8 per cent of elected representatives were landless peasants while 93 per cent were from landowning classes.

Third sex gets official status in Tamil Nadu

Continuing with the theme of alternative sexualities…today’s front page lead story in the Bombay edition of the Sunday Times of India is interesting, to say the least.

Transgendered people in Tamil Nadu can now mark their sex as T in official documents instead of M and F. This is a real step forward in recognising the fact that there are people who define themselves outside the sexual binaries of ‘male’ and ‘female’.

Follow this link for the story, though I am afraid the full story is in the print edition.
Now, how long will it take for the next barrier to be breached? I am talking about article 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexuality. When will this relic from the raj era be struck down?

The Scarlette Saga

The case of Scarlette Keeling’s death in Goa is taking on epic proportions with accusations of cover-up and corruption leveled against the Goan police by Scarlette’s mother while the police seemingly shift from one position to another. First they said it was a case of death by drowning due to drug use in spite of the first autopsy detailing multiple signs of abuse on the girl’s body. After the second autopsy they changed the cause of death to rape and murder and then again flipped by falling back to their original position that it was actually death by drowning all along. Then they started claiming it was the fault of the girl’s mother to leave her alone in Goa while the former traveled elsewhere in India. And now, suddenly, the Goan police state that they have cracked the case with one of the prime suspects confessing to the rape and murder.

It is understandable why Fiona Mackeown, Scarlett’s mother, has no trust in the Goan police and wants a CBI probe. She alleges that the Goan police are in a criminal nexus with drug dealers and since the latter according to many reports are involved in the death of Scarlette she further claims that the police want to cover up the murder to protect the drug dealers. Another theory doing the rounds is that the Goan police wanted to hush up the murder as they did not want to damage Goa’s reputation as a prime tourist destination especially among Britons who comprise 60% of the foreigners visiting Goa.

Whichever way the case may finally turn what is undeniable is that it has completely tarnished the image of Goa and its police. In their bungled attempts to hush up the murder the Goan police have created a sordid news story that is going around the world. End result: Goa’s reputation as a ‘safe’ tourist paradise is under threat. Going wider it also threatens to silence the buzz generated by the ‘Incredible India’ tourist campaign. It is only recently that tourism in India has been growing at a strong pace increasing employment and injecting much needed money into the local economies. This case will only add to India’s unfortunate reputation that the rule of law exists only in name in India leading to tourists feeing unsafe and unprotected. One potential method to correct this would be for the Indian government to develop a special section among the police (that is accountable and transparent) to deal with crimes committed against tourists.

Unless the Goan police and the state government act quickly and take steps to restore confidence by punishing those police personnel involved in the cover up (the suspension of the one of the inspectors involved in the alleged cover up is a good first step) and pursue the criminals involved it is safe to speculate that tourist arrivals into Goa will take a hit. And underneath all the allegations and cover ups let us not forget the tragedy of a 15 year old girl who got involved with drugs and was killed while on holiday. While Fiona Mackeown might indeed have been irresponsible to leave her young daughter in the care of a tourist guide the least the Goan police can now do is to ensure that swift justice is delivered to her and her grieving family.

Free Binayak Sen…NOW!!!

For all those concerned with the continued incarceration of Dr Binayak Sen, who continues to languish in a jail in Chhattisgarh on charges of being a “naxal”, please sign this online petition.

Dr Binayak Sen is a paediatrician, public health specialist and national vice president of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties who decided to make his home in Chhattisgarh bringing medical facilities to the tribals and dispossessed. For the last two years a near civil war situation has been prevailing in Chhattisgarh as a ‘spontaneous’ militia called the Salwa Judum has been waging a war of attrition with the extreme left wing Maoists in the jungles of Chhattisgarh.

It is widely believed that Salwa Judum is a front for government and acts on behest of the police-contractor-business nexus in terrorrising villagers and forcing them to leave their villages in order to depopulate whole areas to deprieve the Maoists of local support. This makes it easier for the police and the militia to hunt them down. There are reliable reports that whole villages have been forced into gated camps, though you won’t get to read these in the mainstream media.

Dr Sen criticised the role of the Salwa Judum and the human rights excesses of the police in Chattisgarh. For his efforts he was charged with ‘aiding and abetting naxal activity in the state’ under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005 and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2004.

The ‘red scare’ has reached ridiculous proportions. People today can be branded ‘Maoist sympathisers’ simply by the act of possessing ‘appropriate literature’. This means that if I possess a copy of the Das Kapital or the writings of Lenin or Mao I could be arrested. I don’t subscribe to Maoist ideology. In fact I have many disagreements with them, but I don’t believe that anyone who reads Maoist literature or even supports them should be arrested on a whim and thrown in jail.

Many civil society organisations are involved in campaigning on behalf of Binayak Sen. I will post updates as and when they happen.

Mumbai Vs Bombay

Prejudices can be hidden for political considerations, but they never entirely disappear. The last week has seen a violent resurrection of the old ‘Marathi Vs outsiders’ theme that has plagued Bombay for the last four decades. This time it’s a splinter of the original champion of the ‘Marathi Manoos’ (Marathi man) that has raised some pertinent questions in an imbecilic fashion.

Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) assaulted several North Indians over the last one week. The primary targets of the MNS’s ire were cab drivers, milk vendors and panwallahs. In other words poor folk who have come to Mumbai to earn a living and support families back home in UP and Bihar. The provocation is the oft- repeated complaint in a rehashed form: the outsiders are flooding Mumbai and taking ‘our’ jobs; jobs that ‘belong’ to the Maharashtrians; ‘they’ don’t want to integrate with ‘our’ culture; ‘they’ live here and still dream of ‘their’ native lands and so on. The target this time are the ‘bhaiyyas’, a pejorative term for North Indians, particularly from UP and Bihar.

The Shiv Sena was the party that originally patented a politics of nativism in the ‘60s. The SS (note the similarity in name to Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, which means ‘Defence Squadron’. Coincidence?) claimed that the first call on Mumbai should rest with the Maharashtrians. The fact that the ‘sons of the soil’ did not control the city’s economy in any significant way added to the resentment. Over the years the SS targeted South Indians, Gujaratis, Muslims and now North Indians, violently in some cases.

Now the MNS has picked up the relay. Raj Thackrey says he will not allow commemoration of any other states’ other than Maharashtra, a reference to the fact that UPites were celebrating UP diwas in Mumbai. He says that if the bhaiyyas indulge in dadagiri they will be taught a lesson.

The latest round of bhaiyya bashing has raised bewildering questions about belonging, intra and transnational identity, allegiance, the nature and ownership of urban spaces and contestation of those spaces in the context of a rapidly globalizing world.

Ever since the demise of the textile mills in the ‘60s, a period that coincided with the rise of the SS, Mumbai has become more oriented towards a services economy, particularly financial services. The ‘Mumbai makeover’ over the last decade has resulted in the traditional chawls being replaced with highrise apartments. The chawls were living spaces conducive for community bonding by the very nature of their architecture: a slew of houses opened out to a common verandah where the residents had an opportunity to interact with each other on a personal basis, participate in each others festivals, bond over chai and drying laundry and where their kids played hide and seek and ‘verandah cricket’. Compare this to the more impersonal highrise towers, where you might live for 20 years and never get to know your neighbour.

Gandhi and Godse

Years ago, sixty to be precise, a ‘crazed madman’ entered an evening prayer meet with a revolver hidden in his clothes. His intention was to assassinate the man leading that prayer meet. Nathuram Godse believed that this man, whom some had foolishly dubbed ‘Mahatma’ was in fact just the opposite: a ‘moorkhatma’. He entertained foolish notions of Hindu-Muslim unity at a time when it was more profitable to make incendiary speeches baying for the other community’s blood. Worse, he was emasculating Hindus by publicly calling for restraint and forgiveness when Muslims were on the rampage demanding Pakistan. What was unforgivable was that he had demanded that the newly formed Indian government pay up the finances owed to the equally newly formed Pakistan government  which they had been holding back. This mad man had to be stopped at any cost.

On January 30, 1948 Nathuram Godse entered the Birla Bhavan grounds in Delhi and made his way through the crowd towards Gandhi. He touched his feet and pumped two bullets into him. As he fell the Mahatma uttered the name of Ram while Godse dropped his gun and surrendered himself to the mercy of the crowd. A shocked nation listened as Nehru tearfully said in a radio broadcast later that night that the ‘light has gone out of our lives’. 

The act of assassinating Gandhi, though a sad and unfortunate event, was nevertheless not surprising. Probably Gandhi himself realised his growing marginalisation in the political process as the independence movement reached its culmination in 1947. His protegees, Nehru and Patel had taken over the reins within the Congress party and Gandhi’s role became more of a spiritual guide and adviser. And Jinnah? Oh, that insufferable fellow-Gujarati had always been Gandhi’s photographic negative: immaculate, English educated, stiff and distant with a fondness for the finer things in life, secular, prim and proper. 

Nehru was the quintessential modernist: His feet were in India, his head in Russia and his heart in England. He believed in science and progress, big dams and rationality, scientific temper and education. As for Patel, he was the clear and level headed iron man of India, a believer in realpolitik who had begged, coerced and bulllied over 500 reluctant princes and petty royalty to join the new republic. Neither had time for the Mahatma’s vision for the newly formed nation. 

De-fencing Procurement Policy

The Indian government is revising its Defense procurement policy yet again. The new policy is more complicated but more vendor-friendly. Earlier, vendors had to prove that 30 % of their order should come from India. The new rules would mean that if a contractor like Lockheed Martin has been sourcing parts for his civilian jets from India, then he can be waived off this 30 %. Similarly, if a contractor proves that in some other way, he has been doing technology transfer to India, he can be waived this requirement. On the face of it, this rule seems rational. But in reality, this is symbolic of the woes that have beset our procurement policy forever. We do not have sufficient transparency in defense procurement. Unless something turns up during a CAG audit, there is no way of finding what went on in a defence deal. The other extreme of such opaqueness is over-sensitivity to scrutiny.

For e.g. the Government is now relaunching the bid for artillery guns, since the contender who seemed ready to win on technical grounds, was the Swedish firm, Bofors. Unwilling to let itself be associated with the name, the government wants to relaunch the bid. This does not augur well for India. Defense procurements should be made on the basis of technical and to an extent financial considerations. (for e.g. with a 70-30 ration being given to technical and financial proposals). Politics should not be allowed to intervene. Though to the credit of our folks in Ministry of Defense, we have a comfortable hybrid of Russian, French, German, Czech, Israeli and now American weapons and our military capabilities are rated even par with the chinese by some experts, the procurement process is all too often doubted by any and every politician. for instance, some years ago, HD Devegowda who was in the opposition, raised a stink saying the T90S battle tanks from Russia were inferior in quality. Exactly how much does HDD know about battle tanks and who were his advisors. This kind of political mudslinging kills any room for bold and timely purchases. As a result, most of our hardware gets outdated before it is even procured.

Yet another problem is that due to the rules of the Indian civil services, no bureaucrat is allowed to spend more than 5 years with the Defence ministry. This is problematic in an area like defense procurement where it takes at least a few years to understand the dynamics of the international arms trade and the country’s requirements. Just when the bureaucrat gets a hang of the job, he is posted out. Since defense tender bidding processes can take up to 3 years, this means that often a bureaucrat in charge of a deal maybe posted out before the deal is signed thus killing continuity. Doesn’t altogether lend us a lot of confidence, right?

It’s time India’s defense ministry and the procurement policy underwent a major overhaul. What we need possibly is a separate service for the defense ministry, an IDS, and greater transparency through ombudsmen etc. Transparency without politicisation. A difficult balance but a necessary measure.

Again, Nandigram

I’ve had some interesting conversations about Nandigram with people in the last few days. Seeing for myself the ground realities there has given me a fresh perspective because no matter how much you read about it or view images on TV there is a certain emotional detachment. Actually visiting the site is an experience. A friend told me that this trip, if not anything else, would change my life. I suppose in a way it has. Nandigram is not just about industry and displacement. It is not even the name of a place in Purba Mednipore district, West Bengal anymore. ‘Nandigram’ is the name of a seismic shift in Indian politics; In future when Nandigram is talked about it will be in the sense of a ‘Before Nandigram’ and ‘After Nandigram’. ‘Before’ signifying a time when politics was more rigidly demarcated into left, centre and right. The battle lines were more clearly defined and people, depending upon their predilections, hunkered down behind the politcal frontlines and yelled abuses at each other. ‘After’ is a strangely disorienting time. The lines demarcating left from right are more nebulous. The ‘left movement’ has received a right hook to the head and is stagerring like a headless chicken.

Let us then take a look at who is saying what. Buddha babu is all set to woo big capital into West Bengal. His mentor, Jyoti Babu “wants capital, both domestic and foreign, after all we are working in a capitalist system. Socialism is not possible now.” Party apparatchik Nilotpal Basu has been tasked with the job of going to TV studios and yelling the opposition down while Big Brother Prakash Karat does the same in Parliament. Nandigram represents the social costs of a particular paradigm of development that a large section of the Indian middle class, political class and media have subscribed to: that of ‘development at any cost’. The human, social and environmental costs of this model of development are not taken into account.

In fact, the more strident the call for development the more of an authoritarian mind set that makes that call. Is it any coincidence that the middle class in the most urbanised and industrialised state, Gujarat, has subscribed to an ideology that blanks out all dissenting views: whether these pertain to the communal question or the Narmada issue. This class has overwhelmingly voted for Narendra Modi who projects an authoritarian figure and ‘development at all costs’ hardtalk. They now talk of him as a potential Prime Minister. Seems like even the organised left has succumbed to this rhetoric. The people who till yesterday cultivated working class militancy and championed peasant’s struggle are now falling over themselves to welcome the Salims and the Tatas. And both left and right use the bogey of ‘Maoist’ to demonise anyone who questions what the state is up to. You just have to look at the number of planted stories in the mainstream media that talk of ‘naxal terror’ to realise that today ‘Naxal/maoist’ has become a sort of code word to shut down voices that question our current model of development, raise issues of human rights or otherwise question the status-quo. So who speaks for the poor now? For clean rivers, for chock-free towns, for farmers, tribals and dalits, for the victims of police brutality and judicial overreach, for Bhopal, Godhra, Marichjhampi. For India. I don’t know.


In India, we believe in reincarnation. So it seems that the nuclear deal has found new life again after being throttled to death. This deal was supposed to be a triumph of Indian diplomacy and of lobbying by the Non-Resident Indian community. It would mean the symbolic acceptance of India as a member of the Nuclear Powers club – a rather parochial institution.

The deal assures that the US provides India nuclear fuel and allow for similar supplies from other nuclear suppliers to further India’s civilian nuclear program as long as IAEA safeguards are respected by India. Ok, all this is known. We also know how this has been opposed by Leftists in India, who threatened to bring down the UPA government and almost scuttled the deal. Now, perhaps due to the public fury generated by the Nandigram incidents, the Left has given its green signal to the deal albeit with silly caveats.

India’s Department of Atomic Energy is now negotiating with the IAEA for India-specific safeguards. Now the Left wants that post the negotiations, a report on the the list of IAEA safeguards agreed upon by India be submitted to a parliamentary committee led by them after which they will give the green signal. Since when have members of our polity become experts on nuclear security? Exactly what is accomplished by this roadblock except face-saving for the Left.

I recently spoke to a key US negotiator for the 123 agreement and I found him a worried man. Will the deal go ahead, he asked me given the political pressures in India? After all, he had spent months cobbling the agreement together along with India’s top diplomats such as Indian ambassador to US, Ronen Sen and Indian ambassador to Singapore, S.Jaishankar apart from officials of the US’ AEC and India’s Department of Atomic Energy. I told the Negotiator that the deal will go ahead, all the while hoping the Indian political system proves me right.

Nandigram: Left is Right

For the last 11 months the Nandigram saga has been unfolding. It is a fascinating insight into the use and deployment of power by a party that has lost its ‘radical’ moorings and now is THE establishment; The insidious ways in which power is deployed to maintain monopoly and crush dissent and the justification offered for the naked use of aggression.

A quick recap: the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led West Bengal government decided to acquire 25,000 acres of land in the Nandigram block a year ago to set up a chemical hub for the Salim group of Indonesia. A notification was issued to this effect without any formal communication, the worst possible way to go about it. Nandigram is prime agricultural land and around 8,000 families stood to lose their only source of livelihood. Naturally there was resentment, especially since there was no clarification from the government about compensation for land, alternative livelihoods etc. This resentment broke out into a full fledged ‘civil war’ when the local residents organised themselves into an organisation called the Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Samiti (BUPS) or Anti Land Acquisition Committee. The BUPS was a militant coalition of political and religious parties. Overnight, roads were dug up, blockades erected and CPI(M) supporters were driven out of their homes into refugee camps. Nandigram became a ‘no go’ area where the government’s writ ceased to function, a ‘liberated’ zone. This was an unprecedented challenge for the CPI(M). In the 30 years that it has ruled West Bengal, it has cultivated a strong network of cadres that have been deployed to ruthlessly crush all opposition within Bengal. The CPI(M) came to power riding on the back of classic Marxist rhetoric: power to the working classes and peasantry, treating the comprador industrial/capitalist class with suspicion and cultivated working class militancy. Never in its wildest dreams could it have imagined that the very political climate that it had cultivated could be used against it.

The matter got further politicised when the main opposition party, the Trinamul Congress, and a host of religious organisations led by the Jamiat-e-ulema hind sensed an opportunity to shore up their support base in what was considered a CPI(M) stronghold.

This volatile mix resulted in the inevitable political stalemate. Attempts to resolve the issue resulted in tragedy when police fired on a protesting crowd on March 14, 2007. Estimates of the number killed vary from 14 (official) to 19.