July 16, 2023

West Bengal: Farcical Panchayat Elections

THE three-tier panchayat elections in West Bengal have seen a repetition of an escalating scale of violence and intimidation unleashed by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) on their political opponents and against people who were perceived to be voting against it. 

At every stage of the polling process – from filing of nominations, campaigning, the polling day on July 8 and the counting day on July 11 – there were attacks on candidates, supporters of opposition parties, intimidation and prevention of voters going to polling booths, capturing of ballot boxes and polling booths and large-scale manipulation of the voting process.

Finally, sensing that the polling had not gone in their favour in many places, there was large-scale manipulation of the counting process ranging from driving out of counting agents of opposition parties, destruction of ballot papers of opposition candidates and falsification of results. There are numerous reports of CPI(M) candidates being elected and given the certificate of election only to see it being snatched away and destroyed by TMC goons. 

One of the most atrocious cases was that in Bhangar, where an ISF candidate, Jehanara Bibi, was winning in the zilla parishad seat when efforts were made to declare the TMC candidate elected.  When local people protested against this fraud, late in the night, the police fired on them and three people were killed on the spot. Overall, atleast sixty people have died in poll related violence.

Another disturbing feature of the election has been the connivance of state administration and police with the ruling party in all its illegal actions. The role of the State Elecion Commissioner has been disgraceful throughout.

The mainstream media have announced that the TMC has won a sweeping victory in the results declared so far.  There is no meaning in trying to analyse these results for any political conclusions. The entire exercise has been farcical and democracy has been butchered in the TMC’s drive to capture all panchayati institutions.

But this anti-democratic onslaught cannot cover-up some heartening features.  Unlike at the time of the 2018 panchayat polls, from the outset, there has been popular resistance to the thuggery of the TMC goons.  There are hundreds of instances where CPI(M) and Left Front candidates and supporters withstood the threats and physical attacks.  On polling day, thousands of people broke through the TMC squads and barricades to cast their votes.  It is this experience, which unnerved the ruling party who embarked upon the plan to falsify the results in the counting process. 

The panchayat elections have also shown that it is the Left and the Congress, which put up maximum opposition to the TMC regime and thus were the main targets for the TMC’s terror tactics.  In comparison, the BJP was a lesser target of attack. This is because, the TMC and the BJP share the same class basis and support among the rural rich and their parasitic hangers-on.

The TMC’s dominance in the rural areas stems from the network it has set-up and operated over the last one decade.  The neo-rich in the rural areas are its main backers.  The political economy of rural Bengal is characterised by ‘rent’ seeking by the TMC cadres at all levels, who siphon off funds of government welfare schemes through “cut money”.  These are commissions extracted from people to become beneficiaries of the various state and central government schemes.  It is this corrupt and powerful network of the neo-rich and their agents, who enforce the will of the TMC. The capture and control of panchayats is crucial for rent generation and extraction. Within this network, there are contradictions and clashes over the sharing of spoils.  At the same time, this network of patronage and lumpen elements are the TMC’s weapon against political opponents and anyone who raises their voice against inequities and deprivation of benefits.

It is this corrupt-criminal nexus, which is being opposed and fought by the CPI(M) and the Left forces.  In the past two years since the assembly elections, the Left has been increasingly leading the growing opposition to the TMC’s corrupt nexus. That is why they have borne the brunt of the attacks and violence in the panchayat elections.

Having been steeled in constant struggles and facing innumerable attacks, the CPI(M) and the Left, along with  its secular allies, will continue to take up the people’s cause and fight the TMC regime.  They will also resolutely oppose the BJP, which is a worse alternative. 

At a time when the opposition parties are gearing up to take on the BJP, the vicious anti-democratic attacks of the TMC in Bengal have been a grave disservice to the cause of opposition unity by making the BJP appear as if it is defending democracy. 

(July 12, 2023)

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