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.


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.


The travesty of a Member of Parliament, Babubhai Katara, being arrested for people-trafficking is a sore reminder of the depravation that has permeated our lawmakers. That Babubhai was naive enough to believe that he could lead a lady in ghunghat masquerading as his wife through immigration in India and Canada, shows the level of (or lack of) intelligence that has become a hallmark of his peers.

What is worse is the decision of the Parliament’s Ethics committee to not take action against him as “charges against him were unrelated to his work in Parliament”.

It is appalling that 135 members of parliament have criminal cases pending against them.

In India, we have a tradition of declaration of assets etc. by candidates when they file their nomination for election. What is missing is a similar declaration once they have been elected. What we need is an annual declaration by all elected members of parliament, of their assets as well as the police record against them. Let the public then judge them.

The problem is such a practice can only be made mandatory by a law. But will the lawmaker be ready to make such a law?

One alternative could be that of an independent agency/NGO taking up this work and of publishing it at the year-end in the newspapers. The Right to Information Act can be very useful for this activity.

The people of India cannot afford to dismiss such crime with cynicism. It is our duty to act.

Justice, oh come on…

So Manu Sharma has got life imprisonment. In passing the judgment the Delhi High Court noted that the trial court’s verdict, which had earlier acquitted Manu Sharma, was ‘perverse that made no sense and was illogical’. Following that verdict there was a national outcry. The media, sensing public outrage got into the act and newspapers swung into campaign mode. Talking heads appeared on TV and railed about miscarriage of justice and perversion of law. Ordinary middle class men and women held candle light vigils and screamed themselves hoarse that Manu Sharma had escaped because he was rich and influential. The national middle class outrage forced the powers that be to order a retrial which has led to the present conviction.

Why was the middle class up in arms over the Jessica lal case? After all, middle class militants in this country are a rarity. Thousands of women are molested, ill treated and raped throughout India every day. How come no one in the cities takes up cudgels on their behalf? Just 2 months ago two dalit women were paraded naked and raped in Khairlanji. What happened to middle class metropolitan rage then? Every year thousands of baby girls are killed? Why do the pretty faces not parade in front of the television then?

Was it because Jessica lal could have been any woman in any city in India. She was young, good looking, independent, modern, English speaking. Hell, she could have been my sister or girlfriend or neighbour. The way she lived and died could be the story of any woman living in big city India. A drunken lout, politically well connected though, shoots her point blank in a trendy bar because he is refused a drink. That could form part of the middle class nightmare. Its not very difficult to imagine because all of us like to go to trendy bars and be served by good looking women. So the middle class erupted in righteous rage because it was one of their own who was killed.

What happened to Jessica was heinous and Manu deserves the penalty he got. Its just that this case has held up a mirror to urban Indian society where we can see a reflection of ourselves, our values and what we hold dear.

Sharmila’s courage

Courage comes in many sizes. Sharmila Irom Chanu is a diminutive woman from Manipur, frail and meek looking. Looking at her one wouldn’t imagine that this woman has embarked upon a courageous mission to save her land and people. But what she has done over the last six years is nothing short of a display of courage of the rarest kind, a courage born out of empathy for the rape of her land.

Sharmila has been on a total hunger strike for the last six years for the cause of withdrawing the Armed Forces Special Provision Act (AFSPA) that has been clamped in Manipur and much of the north-east of India. This draconian act gives the Indian army power to detain and shoot people upon a mere suspicion. Further, army personnel cannot be prosecuted without prior permission from the ministry of home affairs.

The turning point for Sharmila was in November 2000 when a convoy of Assam Rifles was ambushed in a village outside Imphal. The enraged troops shot dead 10 people at a bus stop. That was when Sharmila decided to embark on her extraordinary measure. After all you have to fight fire with fire. In this case she decided to use a Gandhian form of non-violent protest and refused to eat or drink anything till AFSPA was repealed from Manipur.

Chinese democracy, Indian autocracy

What rights do a people, who have been dispossessed of their land for half a century and live in another country, have? This must be the question Tibetans must be asking themselves in the wake of Chinese premier Hu Jintao’s visit to India.

Ever since China’s brutal invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1959 India has hosted the largest community of Tibetan exiles including their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. They have lived here for three generations and the younger members have no living memory of Tibet, except for their parents tales of it, and a nostalgic yearning for a lost homeland. Every time a Chinese official visits India the Tibetans have organized protests demanding freedom for Tibet. This time too the Tibetans geared up to greet Hu with protests and sit ins. But the Indian government took no chances and muzzled their protests. Tibetans were placed under preventive custody and those who actually protested were arrested and whisked away.

The Tibetans have a right to protest and express their grievances in public spaces. Especially since China is still continuing with its brutal occupation of Tibet and has reduced the Tibetans to a minority in their own land by encouraging Han Chinese to migrate there. Tibetan culture has been brutally suppressed in the name of development and China has arrested thousands of Tibetans.

Road Rage

Another dream(s) crumbles to dust under the wheels of a spoilt brats car. Six labourers were mowed to death last night on Carter Road in Bandra by drunken louts driving a Toyota Corolla. That’s six innocent lives snuffed out by a reckless 20 year old who has daddy’s money to throw around. The dead include a pregnant woman and two children. So if you count the unborn child as a separate entity that’s seven people. As always (anyone remember the Salman Khan case?) the people at the receiving end were daily wage labourers who lived in tin sheds on the pavement on Carter Road and the killers were teenagers who had been partying at the Taj hotel till the wee hours before they embarked on their drive from hell.

So apart form the hue and cry in today’s papers (it has made front page news in ToI and IE) who will spare a thought for those killed? Life will go on as usual; People will rush about with their daily grind, People will jostle for space on the Churchgate fast local and A few anguished souls will vent their angst in the blogosphere.

The Kherlanji Incident

Where is the humanity in this? Is this the very land where apparently tolerance is ingrained in our very blood? Is this happening in the same country where the government is bending over backwards to build nuclear bombs and lobby for a permanent seat in the Security Council when the police cannot be depended upon to protect those who need it the most? This is human nature at its darkest.

To read that the whole village, including women, stood by and watched as Surekha (45 yrs old) and her daughter Priyanka (17 years old) were beaten, mutilated, disfigured, tortured and gang-raped to death. To read that her two sons, Roshan (23 years old and blind) and Sudhir (21 years old), were beaten to death and their genitals mutilated makes me frightened to think about what is happening in the ‘other’ India. An India, where being born into a lower caste is like being cursed for life, where justice and human rights are words without any meaning, and where police and other public officials are puppets in the hands of a powerful few. This is not the ‘news’ the rest of India is fed. This is not the ‘democracy’ the high and mighty of the political elite want the world to see. This is not the ‘equality under law’ the politicians preach.

So speak out my dear friends. Talk about this on/in your blogs, phones, drawing rooms, offices, street corners, restaurants, pubs, clubs, discos, coffee joints and spread the word. Tell everyone you know about how the dreams of three youngsters and their mother were brutally erased. Talk about how the police even now ignore basic procedures and protect the perpetrators. Talk about how justice is only the preserve of a select few in today’s India. For even talking is better than being silent. For perhaps someone somewhere in the corridors of power will listen and take action.