Panchayat Election in West Bengal (11 May 2003)
Murder of Democracy at the Grassroots
The sixth general panchayat election in West Bengal concluded on 11 May 2003. This was the first major ‘democratic’ exercise under the ‘improved’ left front rule of Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya and everybody was eager to witness how ‘democracy’ flourished under his ‘improved’ left rule.
Explosion of ‘uncontested’ victories
The notification of the panchayat election took place on 3rd April 2003 and the last date for filing nominations was 16th April. As the days for filing nominations neared, it was noted that as many as 6800 seats at three layers of the panchayats were going uncontested or unopposed. It was clear to all that the goons of the CPI(M) were preventing opposition parties from submitting their nomination papers in various districts of West Bengal. When the electronic and print media reported several such incidents of intimidation, harassment, and threats to the activists of the opposition parties by the CPI(M) goons, the chief minister asked his administration, specially the police administration to look into such allegations by the opposition parties. This ‘assurance’ came conveniently late: it was made just two days before the deadline, on 14th April, incidentally a holiday.
The LF chairman, Biman Bose, who is also a politbureau member of the CPI(M), offered the following explanation, “Due to the exceptionally better performances in rural areas by the LF specially under ‘improved’ left front rule, the opposition parties have failed to motivate their cadres and activists to contest in the panchayat election.” This contention was however challenged not only by all opposition parties but by LF partners like RSP and Forward Bloc as well.
Amazingly, as many as 60,000 nomination papers were filed on a single day of 16th April – the last date for filing nominations. Scrutiny revealed that as many as 80% of such nominations were false dummy candidates put up the CPI(M) to maintain the illusion of ‘democracy’. The panchayat poll results last year showed 600 uncontested victories. This year, that figure is 6800! What else but rigging through terror and intimidation can account for this amazing leap from 600 to 6800?! Former Commissioner for Land Reform, one of the pioneers of the land reform and panchayat raj package of the LF Govt. in 1977-78, Debabrata Bandyapadhyay has aptly described it as a case of ‘rigging direct at source’ (after the Income Tax Department’s tax realisation practice of tax deduction at source) in order to get instant results and to reduce costs and troubles involved in normal and fair election procedure. (The Statesman 9th May 2003).
A closer look reveals that the lion’s share of ‘uncontested’ victories have gone to the CPI(M); CPI(M) candidates won 5030 G.P. seats, 836 in Panchayat Samiti seats and 31 Zilla Parishad seats ‘unopposed’. This remarkable ‘uncontested victories’ of 31 zilla parishad seats by the CPI(M) has happened for the first time in the history of panchayat election in West Bengal. It is another matter that despite 31 uncontested victories, the CPI(M)’s final tally of ZP seats fell 14 short of its 1998 tally (546 in 2003 as against 560 in 1998). ‘Rigging direct at source’ was massive in some districts of the state. For example in Arambagh subdivision of Hooghly district, out of six blocks, there are no opposition candidates in 5 blocks (41% of the seats went unopposed in this district). In Keshpur, Garbeta, Pingla, Sabang, Ghatal, Daspur and Chandrakona of West Midnapur district, the CPI(M) candidates won victories in all the seats without any contest as there were no opposition candidates, though many gram panchayats and panchayat samities were in the hands of the opposition parties (31-32% of seats in this district are uncontested CPI(M) victories).
Bloodiest Panchayat elections
The recent panchayat elections in West Bengal have also surpassed all previous records of poll violence in West Bengal. A quick look at the table below would shows that the number of deaths in poll violence had hitherto never crossed 7 since 1972 (though pre- and post-poll violence during the ‘white terror’ reign of SS Ray had eliminated thousands of CPI(ML) and CPI(M) leaders and activists in 1972). In the recent polls, however, 47 persons were killed before the polls, 35 on the polling day and 25 people have been killed post-poll in Murshidabad district alone. The count of those injured crosses the 1000 mark. Where there was resistance from the opposition, be it by the Congress or by the RSP and the SUCI, the CPI(M) too had to suffer some losses; otherwise it has been a one-sided game of killing of opposition activists by CPI(M) goons. Apart from clashes, the elections were also marked by several ghastly incidents of dacoity and rape.
Comparative results of 1988, 1993, 1998 panchayat polls showed a clear declining trend for the CPI(M)-led Left Front. There was a 16.76% decrease in the number of gram panchayat seats held by the LF in 1998 compared to 1988 (66.48% in 1988, 57.97% in 1993 and 47.72% in 1998). In panchayat samiti seats, the decline was of the order of 11.25% (71.85% in 1988, 69.05% in 1993 and 60.60% in 1998). In terms of vote share too, the LF suffered a clear decline between 1988 and 1998. In fact, in 1998 the LF got 49.57% of the total vote compared to the combined opposition votes of 50.23% by the TMC, the BJP & the Congress. In the 1998 elections to the zilla parishads, the CPI(M) had secured 1,20,25,715 votes to win 560 zila parishad seats whereas the Congress, the TMC & the BJP together had got 1,34,14,538 votes bagging only 71 seats.
Apart from a lurking threat of an opposition mahajot (grand alliance), the CPI(M) also had its share of large-scale dissension within the Left Front. The CPI(M) no longer has an independent majority in the Assembly, and debates and differences within the Left Front over a host of issues including the question of agricultural policy have been widening. In at least 4,500 seats the CPI(M) and the RSP had filed candidates against each other specially in South Dinajpur, Murshidabad and South 24 Parganas. There were bloody clashes between the CPI(M) and the RSP cadres and activists. The CPI(M) goons heckled even two RSP ministers during their election campaigning. The situation reached such a pass that the RSP threatened to come out of the LF ministry and the LF itself. The clashes between the CPI(M) and the Forward Bloc took place in Coochbehar where the CPI(M) and the FB had a ‘friendly’ contest in about 450 seats.
What probably made the CPI(M) still more wary about its control on the panchayats was the fact that the present elections were being held in circumstances of a growing agrarian crisis. Reports of suicides of peasants due to non-payment of loans have started coming in from various districts. Growers of paddy, potato and jute are faced with a major crisis to sell their crop and recover their investment. There is also tremendous unrest in the countryside over the preparation of ‘below poverty line’ list with the central and state governments fixing a 26% ceiling for the BPL quota. Apart from wholesale exclusion of BPL families from the list, complaints of non-deserving pro-CPI(M) families getting included in the list are also quite rampant.
To ‘manage’ this crisis and implement the new agricultural policy of crop diversification, contract farming and higher input rates, the CPI(M) was desperate to ensure its absolute control over the panchayats. Hence it shelved all democratic pretense and resorted to a systematic terror campaign. In fact, this campaign had begun right in the wake of last Assembly elections when the CPI(M) celebrated its victory and the unexpected defeat suffered by the TMC by forcibly ‘reclaiming’ several marginal panchayats from the control of the erstwhile TMC-BJP alliance.
Election results 2003 at a glance:
The CPI (M) and the LF have won a ‘landslide’ victory in all the three tiers of the Panchayats. Barring the districts of Murshidabad, Maldah and 24 Parganas (North & South), the CPI(M) and the Left front swept the polls in the rest of West Bengal at all levels. Out of a total number of 58,356 panchayat seats, the Left Front won 40,000 seats (67.16%) in 2003 (an overall increase of 9.09% since 1998). The break-up for the three different tiers is as follows: (i) Gram Panchayat: total seats 49,144, results declared 47,197, LF 32,314, Congress 5,720, TMC 5.803, BJP 1,260, others 2,100; (ii) Panchayat Samiti: total seats 8,500, LF 6,264, Congress 1,056, TMC 815, BJP 155, others 207, (iii) Zilla Parishad: total seats 713, results declared 712, LF 615, Congress 68, TMC 16, BJP 2, others 11.
For the first time, the Congress has got the Murshidabad Zilla Parishad (31 of 60 seats) and in the Maldah Zilla Parisad, the Congress is the single largest Party [Congress – 15, TMC – 1, BJP - 1, LF 15]. The overall performance of the Congress is better in Murshidabad, Maldah and parts of North Dinajpur and Birbhum districts. The TMC-BJP alliance has suffered a major defeat in the Zilla Parishad and in the Panchayat Samities. Compared to its 1998 performances the overall decline of the Trinamul Congress is from 19.25% to 11.36% (in seats). In 1998, the TMC got 38 Zilla Parishad seats, but this time it could secure only 17 seats. In the Panchayat Samitis, TMC’s share dropped drastically from 1439 to only 815 seats.
The RSP has had to contest against the CPI(M) in many seats in all the tiers, but its performance is not so bad. It has got 22 Zilla Parishad seats, 225 Panchayat Samiti and 1266 Gram Panchayat seats.
A few words about our own performance in this election. We conducted a vigorous campaign around the burning and basic issues of the masses in the rural areas: re-imposition of land-tax and cess (which are being collected with retrospective effect from 1978 and that too at compound interest), the failure of the LF government to publish the BPL list, failure to enact a comprehensive legislation for the agricultural workers, non-implementation of the minimum wages acts for agricultural labourers, corruption in the panchayats, bureaucratic disbursal and misuse of development funds by the panchayat bodies, and above all, the political terror which stifled the grassroots democracy of the rural people. We contested 581 Gram Panchayat seats, 65 Panchayat Samiti seats & 20 Zila Parishad seats. But we could manage to win only 21 Gram Panchayat seats, finishing second in another 30 GP seats.
— Partha Ghosh