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.

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.