The recently concluded general elections in West Bengal were marked by violence, as workers of various parties clashed with each other. None of this is new, of course. For decades now, the politics of West Bengal has been notably aggressive.

Unusually, however, far more party workers have been killed after the election got over than actually during the campaign. If violence was an attempt to influence voting during the elections, what explains this spike after the exercise ended?

There is another puzzle. If politics is very violent, would that not prompt common citizens to retreat from it? Curiously, West Bengal actually has very high voter turnouts. In fact, in the recently concluded general elections, Bengal had the highest voter turnout of any major state – 81.85%

Both of these questions point to a paradox of politics in West Bengal. Political violence in the state is actually an ugly outcome of two positive features: strong local democracy as well as the recent spurt of rural development under the Trinamool Congress after stagnation under the Left.

Local democracy

West Bengal owes its culture of robust local government to the emergence of the Communists, who had a strong base in the rural areas of the state. In 1978, a year after coming to power, the Left Front government held the first panchayat election under a new system of three-tiered local government: gram panchayat at the village level, panchayat samiti at the block level and zilla parishad at the district level.

Moreover, like Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, the Bengal panchayat election are also fought by political parties – unlike in most other states where voters must choose individuals without any party symbols. But voting for parties, research has shown, allows voters to “fix responsibility” and “results in effective delivery of public service”.

In its 34 years in power, the Left Front never missed a single panchayat election, a stark contrast to other states. Moreover, significant powers were transferred to local bodies by the state government.

One 2007 study by Shubham Choudury, an economist at United States’ Columbia University, found that West Bengal was second only to Kerala on devolving power to the local level. In fact, Choudury found that Kerala and Bengal were the “only two states to have undertaken significant devolution” at all.

Marxist party control

That said, the situation in Bengal appeared better on paper than it was in practice. On the ground, very often, the panchayats were actually controlled by members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

“In effect, this means that the panchayat system has been mediated by a party cadre, on behalf of the people, under the strict control of Marxist party discipline,” wrote sociologists Partha N. Mukherji and Bhola Nath Ghosh.

As a typical example of how this would work in practice, Mukherji and Ghosh found that in one panchayat in Nadia district, the elected Dalit pradhan was actually subservient to an upper-caste, bhadralok CPI(M) member from the neighbouring village, even though the latter held no post in the administration. So while the elected members of local bodies might have reflected the social composition of the village, in practice they were “guided in decision making by somebody from the party who generally belongs to the upper strata of the rural society”.

The state police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel conducting a route march in Bolpur in West Bengal's Birbhum district on April 26. Driven by the violence in the 2018 Panchayat Election, the Election Commission had ensured an unprecedented deployment of paramilitary personnel during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Photo Credit: Indrajit Roy/IANS

Party control collapses

After 1978, the second phase in devolution came in 2011, when the Communists lost power to the Trinamool Congress. Mamata Banerjee’s party had almost no organisation to speak off and held very little control over elected local body officials. In this situation, gram panchyats assumed a remarkable amount of power.

While under the Left, leaders who held power in the village were often upper caste members of the party, under the Trinamool they were elected members of local bodies and, as a result, often better reflected the actual social composition of the village.

Almost inadvertently, the vast amounts of power the Communist government had transferred to local bodies on paper – and which were actually exercised by party cadre – started to be fully exercised by the panchayats in practice under the Trinamool.

As a result, the panchayat acquired a significant amount of discretion when it came to implementing government schemes. Moreover, patronage for these was often distributed along party lines, a carryover from the Left era.

A village resident’s chances of getting, say, a grant under the government’s housing scheme would be much higher if he were an identified Trinamool voter. “I have not got a house, but people who are with the Trinamool have got two-three houses under the names of their family members,” complained Jainul Shah from Chakra village in Purulia district.

Rural development surge

Not only did the panchayats gain power with the collapse of a controlling party system, it was also helped by a significant spike in rural development under the Trinamool, after more than a decade of stagnation under the Left.

In 2018, for example, West Bengal was the leading state for providing jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and in the top three for rural housing. For the year 2018-’19, West Bengal’s budgetary allocation for agriculture and rural development saw a significant 82% rise over spending for 2017-’18.

This rural development was one of the major reasons for the Trinamool’s landslide win in the 2016 Assembly elections and is a point widely acknowledged today as well. “Schools, hospitals and roads are very good here in Jhargram,” said Gautam Pal, a BJP sympathiser in Jhargram district’s Neguria village.

The Lok Sabha election result led to several Trinamool offices being forcibly taken over by the BJP. This was, in some ways, a smaller instance of what had happened when the Trinamool gained power in 2011, taking over Left offices. Here, an office is reclaimed by the Trinamool on May 30, with Chief Minister Banerjee herself panting over a defaced lotus symbol.

Rural development and local corruption

However, while the panchayat-driven rural development has ensured political success for the Trinamool, there is no rose without a thorn. Since now the panchayat channels a significant amount of funds to the village, local corruption is widespread. This has, naturally, lead to much anger at local Trinamool leaders.

In Birbhum’s Morgram village, Shakaal Mal complained that it was impossible to access most welfare schemes without paying bribes to panchayat members: “People will only get Kanyashree if they pay Rs 5,000. Otherwise, they will not get it at all.”

Kanyashree entails a one-time payment of Rs 25,000 to girls when they turn 18 in order to dissuade child marriage as well as promote female higher education. It is a flagship scheme of the West Bengal government which has bought Mamata Banerjee much electoral success. But now, as the sheen wears off, voters like Mal – a strong BJP supporter – are more inclined to chafe at the local corruption.

Mobilising communally for development

These raised expectations of rural development and the struggle to engage the local panchayat in order to corner resources means that competition is often expresses in communal terms.

Many Hindu villagers, for example, often appreciate the strong rural development that the Trinamool bought about vis-à-vis the Left, but this complaint is often accompanied by a charge that Muslims got more than them.

“Mamata is good, she has given us a lot, but it is her party men who don’t let us get anything,” argued Tarak Mal in Morgram. “Muslim villages are given more funds to build mosques.”

While funds to build mosques might not be factually accurate per se, the sentiment that Muslims are getting relatively more than Hindus clearly overrode the absolute spike in rural development since the time of the Left. And it is this sentiment that was partly responsible for the consolidation of anti-Trinamool votes in the Lok Sabha election.

CPI(M) central committee member and former Lok Sabha MP Ram Chandra Dome was attacked allegedly by Trinamool cadre in Birbhum district during the 2018 Panchayat Elections in bid to prevent the Opposition from filing nominations. As many as 34% of gram panchayat seats went uncontested in that election. This led to significant anger against the Trinamool in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Credit: YouTube

Disorder and devolution

This frenetic grassroots political activity starting from the gram panchayat means a highly politicised population. It is this that has periodically driven very high voter turn outs in Bengal. However, it also means control of grassroots politics is often critical for a Bengali villager given the power a panchayat wields – which often leads to violence.

Violence and democratic devolution are, therefore, paradoxically linked in West Bengal.

This is also why violence has ironically spiked instead of subsiding since the Lok Sabha elections. As an ascendant BJP now challenged the Trinamool for control of local bodies, there is a lot at stake. On June 10, for example, two BJP workers and one Trinamool cadre were killed in North 24 Parganas district close to the Bangladesh border as part of violence over control of the local gram panchayat. Violence in the Barrackpore area has also been accompanied by local bodies switching over from the Trinamool to the BJP.

This is also why anger over the rigged 2018 panchayat polls played a significant part in the 2019 general elections. A long-running, powerful panchayat system had made it an integral feature of political life in rural West Bengal. Villagers did not appreciate attempts by the Trinamool Congress – supported by a police force controlled from Kolkata – to hijack it.