Tamal Let’s rage when describing the accusations of large-scale rigging in the 2018 West Bengal Panchayat polls evaporates when asked how he is going to vote in the Lok Sabha elections. “Chup chaap, phule chhaap,” said Let in Bengali with a grin. Keep quiet and vote for the flower, referring to the lotus that is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s symbol.

Let lives in Kurugram Gram Panchayat in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. It is part of Birbhum Lok Sabha constituency, which votes on April 29. Each of the 19 seats in the gram panchayat – the lowest tier of local government in the state – went uncontested in the 2018 local body polls. Each of the 18 seats in the Birbhum Zilla Parishad – the highest tier – also went uncontested.

This story has been reported from four Lok Sabha constituencies across West Bengal.

The ruling Trinamool Congress won walkovers in each of those seats with widespread allegations that the party had disallowed Opposition candidates from filing nominations by using force. Let’s own village saw a BJP contingent locked up in a government building by ruling party workers, supported by the police, till the nomination window closed.

Birbhum was not alone – allegations that the Trinamool Congress used muscle to rig the polls were widespread across the state.

A year later, anger at this rigging has not died down. In fact, the episode has sharpened support for the BJP in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, which, conducted by Central paramilitary forces, will not allow the state government to effect any widespread malpractice.

Multi-phase polls

More than a third of all gram panchayat seats in 2018 saw the Opposition unable to file nominations, resulting in Trinamool candidates winning walkovers. The election saw a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

One direct result of this was that the Election Commission, in March, announced an unprecedented seven-phase Lok Sabha schedule in West Bengal. The state votes in every phase of the general election. The Trinamool Congress immediately protested, blaming the Union government for submitting a false law and order report to the Election Commission. Later, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused paramilitary forces of helping the BJP.

However, little discussed is how her own party’s strong-arm tactics are driving voters to the BJP too.

‘Only BJP managing to hold on’

Oddly for West Bengal, Dilip Das is not an enthusiastic participant when it comes to discussing politics. He runs a small eatery by the roadside close to Barasat town, around two hours from Kolkata. It is part of Barasat Lok Sabha constituency, which votes in the last phase of polling, on May 19. However, one topic does get Das talking: last year’s panchayat polls.

“We were scared to even leave the house that day,” narrated Das. “If they found you on the road, they didn’t even talk. They took your money, your watch, and then ordered you to go back home.”

Das, 56, is an immigrant from East Bengal, who came over during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War after his village was attacked by the Pakistan Army. Like a number of East Bengalis, Das was a Left supporter. But driven at least partly by the panchayat violence, Das will now vote BJP. “The Trinamool has finished off the Left here,” argued Das. “Only the BJP is managing to hold on.”

Dilip Das, from near Barasat town, is angry at the panchayat polls rigging. While never a Trinamool voter, the violence has prodded him to shift his vote from the Left to the BJP, since the saffron party was better able to resist the ruling party's strong-arm tactics. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

Right to vote

A further 200 km north in the district of Uttar Dinajpur, Sirajuddin Sarkar shares a similar complaint. “I agree that the Trinamool has done a lot of development here,” said Sarkar, his voice becoming more strident. “But, you tell me: why was my right to vote taken away? That is a basic right in a democracy.”

In a grievance repeated across the state, Sarkar complains that the police and civic volunteers – a government contingent of young men that assist in policing duties – either did nothing to stop this rigging or, in most cases, aided it.

In the Murshidabad Lok Sabha constituency, political violence was the most prominent theme at the election rally of Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate Badarudozza Khan, who is the MP from this seat.

“Dar ke age jeet hai [Beyond fear there is victory],” one speaker thundered, repeating the catchline of an American carbonated beverage to inspire communists to combat political violence in rural Bengal. Khan himself delivered a speech calculated to marshal his troops, warning workers that the Trinamool Congress might use the same force, like it did during the panchayat elections.

Murshidabad voted on April 23.

A Left meeting in Murshidabad Lok Sabha constituency. The speeches were dominated by a discussion on how to resist the Trinamool's strong-arm tactics as the election got closer. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

Ramshackle Trinamool organisation

The Left belligerence is not surprising. The party was badly affected by the panchayat violence. Not only did the Communists slip to third place, more damagingly, their image as the main Opposition to the Trinamool Congress took a beating. The Trinamool might have rigged the polls for their own benefit but as an unintended consequence, it boosted the image of the BJP as the only party that could just about stand its ground

Paradoxically, the widespread rigging also showed how ramshackle the Trinamool Congress organisation was on the ground – a fact that will further help voters take the BJP seriously.

“The Trinamool’s party organisation is much weaker than the Left’s was,” said Maidul Islam, a political scientist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata. “So the party depends on local leaders working with the local administration. That rigging was widespread, in fact, shows that in many cases, the central leadership of the Trinamool has nominal control over local leaders, since after a point their own interests outweigh those of Kolkata’s. If not allowed freedom of action, they will not work for elections that the central leadership cares about, like the Lok Sabha”.