In 1978, West Bengal became the first state in India to allow direct elections to all tiers of local government. Under the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government, the state has held regular panchayat elections every five years, the only state other than Gujarat to do so. Yet, along with the good there is the bad. The state’s culture of political violence, which goes back to the 1970s, rears its head during every panchayat election. This held fast under the rule of the Congress, Left and continued right through till the coming of the Trinamool Congress in 2011.
The 2018 panchayat polls in West Bengal are scheduled to be held on May 14 after a maze of twists and turns. Violence has rocked the exercise, with Opposition parties accusing the ruling Trinamool Congress of preventing their candidates from filing nominations.
Here are some of the more troubling facts about the elections:
Walkover: TMC has already won 34% of gram panchayat seats
By far the most worrying part of this election has been the large number of seats in which only the ruling party has managed to file nominations, leading to a victory even before a single vote has been cast.
The Trinamool is the only party contesting in 34% of gram panchayat seats, 33% of the panchayat samiti seats and 25% of the zilla parishad seats. These three tiers form the three levels of Panchayati Raj. The gram panchayat is at the village level, the panchayat samiti is at the block level, and the zilla parishad is at the district level.
In Birbhum, the district worst affected, 41 out of 42 seats in the zilla parishad have only one candidate contesting: a Trinamool Congress nominee.
Political violence and uncontested seats are not new to West Bengal. But matters seem to have taken a significant dive this year. The previous high of uncontested seats was 11% in 2003 under the Communist Party of India (Marxist) administration.
Taking note of the matter, the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the results of the uncontested seats will not be notified by the state election commission.
The Bharatiya Janata Party claims that 52 of its workers have been murdered in the run up to the panchayat polls. The Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, claims 14 of its workers have been killed. The violence has even singed the press: in one case, a journalist was stripped and threatened by Trinamool Congress workers for reporting on the violence.
With Opposition parties moving court, alleging the use of force by the Trinamool Congress to keep them from filing their nominations, the schedule of the panchayat elections has been clouded in confusion and disarray.
At first, the West Bengal State Election Commission announced that the elections will be held in three phases: May 1, May 3 and May 5, with the last date for filing nominations falling on April 9. Following widespread complaints that Opposition parties were unable to file nominations, the state election commission extended the deadline to April 10 – and then inexplicably withdrew its order.
The Calcutta High Court, though, ordered the commission to extend the last date of filing nominations, and this was eventually fixed at April 23. The final date for the election – May 14 – however, was fixed as late as May 10 by the Supreme Court.
The early date and the fact that this is a single-phase poll is seen to suit the Trinamool Congress. The ruling party had argued for both, pointing out that the Islamic fasting month of Ramzan starts on May 16. The Opposition dismissed this argument, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) pointing out that panchayat elections have coincided with Ramzan earlier.
Should email (and WhatsApp) nominations be allowed?
Given that physical security is the major issue preventing Opposition parties from filing nominations, the obvious solution would have been to use technology to obviate the need for nominations to be filed in person.
But that is easier said that done.
On April 25, the Calcutta High Court rejected the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s pleas to allow email nominations. But on May 8, the court reversed its stand and allowed nominations to be filed by email after a plea from the communist party, which claimed it had sent 831 emails to the Election Commission to file nominations. But the next day, the Supreme Court reversed the high court’s order, and email nominations were finally disallowed.
To add to the confusion, a few candidates were permitted to file their nominations via WhatsApp. On April 25, the Calcutta High Court allowed nine candidates from Bhangar, the site of an agitation against land acquisition by the state government, to send in their nominations using the messaging service. The candidates belong to the Communist Party of India – Marxist Leninist (Red Star).
BJP beats CPI(M)
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) ruled West Bengal for 34 years, exerting its dominance over the state’s politics over that period. However, within just seven years of being out of power, it has fallen hard.
In the panchayat polls, the BJP actually managed to file more nominations than the Communist Party of India (Marxist). This is the case for all three tiers: the gram panchayat, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad. Given that the act of filing a nomination is often a show of force in rural Bengal, this shows that the BJP is now stronger than the communists on the ground and is the main Opposition party in West Bengal.
Squeezed by the belligerence of the Trinamool Congress, the panchayat elections have seen a rather odd phenomenon: an alliance of the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in some pockets of the state. The Indian Express, for example, found that election graffiti in Nadia district have both the lotus of the BJP and the hammer and sickle of the communists. In other areas, the two parties have marched together to protest the Trinamool Congress’s violence. In Malda and Murshidabad, the only districts in the state with a substantial Congress presence, the Trinamool is up against workers from all three parties.