Elections in West Bengal are always politically charged affairs. But the recent elections to the Panchayati Raj, the local self-governing bodies, were even more tempestuous than usual. These polls were particularly significant because they came in the wake of a period of notable political turmoil in West Bengal. Over the past three years, the state has been rocked by violent disputes over land acquisition; a scam in the Public Distribution System, which provides foods at subsidised rates; the mishandling of the bird-flu epidemic; the mysterious suicide of a young Muslim computer worker named Rizwanur Rehman, allegedly involving top industrialists and policemen; and the furore over extending Taslima Nasreen’s visa. Adding to this volatile mix has the state government’s controversial policy regarding industrialisation. All in all, this is the first time in the Left Front’s 31-year rule that so much dissent has been publicly articulated in its bastion of rural Bengal.
The Panchayat polls were held in three phases, on 11, 14 and 18 May. These corresponded to the three-tier Panchayat system: the Gram Panchayat, representing a cluster of villages; the Panchayat Samity, covering a block; and the apex Zilla Parishad, at the district level. The Left Front retained control of 13 of the 17 Zilla Parishads (two fewer than in 2003), winning 519 out of 748 seats or almost 70 percent. It also won 57 percent of Panchayat Samity seats and 51 percent of Gram Panchayat seats. Though this represents a majority in all three tiers, it is nowhere near the 85 percent of Panchayat Samity and 71 percent of Gram Panchayat seats that the Front won in 2003. While it would be hasty to jump to the conclusion that it is a complete electoral rejection, the results certainly indicate chinks in the Left Front’s armour.
To understand why the Panchayat elections are so important, it is necessary first to understand how the system was introduced, and how it functions. In 1978, West Bengal was the first state to hand over implementation and maintenance of rural projects to elected bodies of local self-government. Since then, elections to this three-tiered system have been held every five years. In the past, the Left Front has won an overall majority in every election, due largely to the mass support base provided by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). (The Left Front itself is an alliance of several left parties, currently comprising the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the All India Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Communist Party of India, the Marxist Forward Bloc, the West Bengal Socialist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party and the Biplobi Bangla Congress.)
For the past three decades, these local-body elections have been used by the Left Front to sink deep roots into the state’s rural areas, and to create an interface between the electorate and the government. But, says Debabrata Bandopadhyay, former state Land Reform Commissioner, “The LF government has not devolved any significant power to the Panchayats.” In fact, far from empowering villagers at the local level, the Panchayati Raj system has become a “wide nexus of corruption”, according to Manoj Bhattacharya, former MP and spokesperson of the Revolutionary Socialist Party. “If people oppose the ruling party, then they are deprived of the amenities provided by the Panchayat system.” Now, the past failures of this system, coupled with the public anger that has arisen over the past year due to land acquisition, could well have turned some of the tide.
Gentry and mafia
This shift away from the Left Front was illustrated by a recent visit to Kemia-Khamarpara Panchayat, on the outskirts of Calcutta in North 24 Parganas District, the rural areas adjoining the urban up-markets of Rajarhat and Salt Lake. Driving through Salt Lake is a revelation, where the gleaming steel-and-glass buildings, housing major information-technology companies, would not look out of place in Bombay or Bangalore. But things are very different in Kemia-Khamarpara. Manas Ghosh, president of the local Trinamool Congress unit, says that people are fed up with the rampant corruption of Panchayat officials. A good example of this has to do with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the country-wide scheme that guarantees a minimum of 100 days of work per person every year. Since this programme is implemented locally by Panchayats, job cards have often been issued not to the people whom they are supposed to be helping, but rather to party hacks. “These people do not work,” says Ghosh, “but get paid anyway while the deserving ones go jobless.”
The vice-like grip held by the CPI (M) over rural West Bengal was driven home during the Nandigram upheaval of 2007. Nandigram was long a red bastion, till plans were announced by the state government to build a chemical plant. Overnight, party workers formed a committee against land acquisition, which then proceeded to conduct a violent struggle (see Himal February 2007, “The poor poetry of industrialisation”).
One factor that had long benefited the Left Front government was the feeble resistance put up by a disunited opposition. Post-Nandigram, however, there was a move to put up a united front for the Panchayat elections, which eventually brought together the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) and the Trinamool Congress on a common platform. This unlikely pairing of a party that considers itself the only ‘genuine’ left party in India, and a party that is decidedly rightwing, may appear odd at first, but in fact there is a symbiotic element to this alliance: the Trinamool Congress contributes the mass base, while the SUCI contributes the intellectual capital. Pravas Ghosh, secretary of SUCI in West Bengal, explains the alliance in terms of putting up a common front to “break the nexus of vote-bank politics controlled by the CPI (M)-backed rural gentry and mafia that the Panchayats have turned into.”
Even Left Front partners worked to undermine one another in the run-up to the polls. A news report on 20 May quoted Left Front Chairman Biman Bose saying that “the LF partners’ incapacity to evaluate their organisational strength has posed a problem in unifying the left”. Bose went on to say that “several thousand candidates of some of the LF partners are contesting against the nominees of other partners. For some seats, the LF partners have been contesting on the basis of an understanding with other forces.”
Consider the example of Babu Sheik, of Chanduli village in Bardhaman District. Sheik had long been a CPI (M) member, and also was part of the party’s village committee, which has the final word on implementation of local projects by the Panchayat. Sheik became disenchanted when he experienced the rampant corruption regarding the distribution of rations at the fair-price shop in Chanduli. “Rice and wheat meant for ‘above poverty line’ and ‘below poverty line’ villagers was being diverted to the open market, where it was sold at a profit,” he said. When he protested to his superiors, he was suspended and then implicated in a number of false police cases. He quit and joined the CPI, also a Left Front constituent – but prior to the polls, he also began actively working to split the left vote to defeat the CPI (M) candidate in Chanduli.
Into the vacuum
The political space created by what could be considered the anti-people policies of the CPI (M) is now being filled by other political parties. For instance, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation is representing the rural poor, by highlighting the problems of small-scale and landless peasants, a constituency that was once the calling card of the CPI (M). In the lead-up to the Panchayat polls, this writer travelled to Mahipalpur village in Hooghly District, not far from Singur, to see how the CPI (ML) Liberation was planning to contest the polls. Shankar Baul Das, who stood for a Zilla Parishad seat, said that his party was pushing for two main issues: an increase in the number of workdays under NREGA from 100 to 200, and a raise in the minimum wage to INR 100 per day.
The fallout from land acquisition for a car factory in Singur led to the CPI (M)’s loss of all of the Gram Panchayat seats in that area. Land acquisition in West Bengal is particularly contentious due to the sheer number of people who depend on agriculture in the state. But according to Tahir Ali, a Liberation activist, there is a lot of disguised unemployment in agriculture; some say this is largely because agricultural productivity has essentially peaked, due to the intensive use of machinery and pesticides. This has inevitably led to out-migration of labour from West Bengal. When asked whether industrialisation could be part of the solution to such a situation, Ali asks, “How can fertile farmland be handed over to industry, even as food prices are rising? In any case, instead of inviting in new industry, how about reviving all of the state’s many sick industrial units?”
Unfortunately, the wider debate regarding industrialisation in West Bengal has been sidelined by political nitpicking. But the fact remains that the CPI (M) remains as committed as ever to industrialisation as a development approach for the state. On 1 May, on a bus travelling to North Bengal, this writer spotted an advertisement issued by the government to commemorate May Day. Instead of the traditional hammer and sickle, however, the sickle had been morphed into an industrial-style cog-wheel, with serrated edges.
The results of the recent Panchayat polls show that there has been a dent in the Left Front’s support; and that the opposition has gained ground is certainly undeniable. If a rejuvenated opposition can take this new context into the general elections, then the Front could end up with fewer MPs in Parliament, and lose some of its clout. In the immediate circumstance, however, one notable question that will confront the Left Front, and will demand resolution, will be how to continue West Bengal’s industrialisation project in a manner that does not alienate the population at large.
~ Tushar Dhara is a freelancer journalist based in Bombay.