Two years after the Trinamool Congress swept into Writers’ Building in Kolkata, it has seized control of 13 of the 17 zilla parishads, and secured over half the seats in the two lower tiers of the panchayats, breaking the Left Front’s hold over rural West Bengal. But if Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee captured the Left’s one-time citadel in central Bengal, she also showed the Congress its place by ensuring the party’s defeat in its key northern bastion of Malda. Indeed, the Congress is possibly the biggest loser among the three parties. But Ms Banerjee’s electoral success has been marred by the unseemly controversy surrounding her face-off with the State Election Commission, large-scale violence accompanied by over 20 deaths, reports of Central forces being kept away from poll booths by the State administration, and widespread intimidation by Trinamool workers of their political rivals. Poll statistics reveal that the ruling party’s candidates won unopposed in as many as 6,272 seats, that is around 11 per cent of the State’s 57,000-odd panchayat seats. Reports suggest that in another five per cent, opposition candidates went underground shortly after filing their nominations. Taking its cue from Left tactics in local elections till 2003, the Trinamool scared away opposition candidates in these seats. Even then, the Trinamool could not match the Left Front’s success at the height of its powers, only narrowly surpassing the latter’s overall tally in 2008.
The significance of these results lies in the special place that panchayats have come to hold, thanks to the 34 years the Left Front ruled West Bengal. Control over these local bodies provided the key to the Left’s vice-like grip over the State. In 2008, when the Left’s zilla parishad tally slipped from 15 to 13, and it lost in the two lower tiers in eight of 17 districts, the message that went out was that the Left “Party Machine” could be breached. The 2009 Parliament election followed and the Left Front’s seat share came down; finally in 2011, it lost the State. Over the years, the handsomely-funded panchayats were not just handing out everything from birth certificates to government jobs, they also controlled the personal lives of those who lived in the villages, arbitrating even in cases of marital discord. It will now be the Trinamool’s turn to use its elected representatives to consolidate its support base. But if the record of its panchayat members over the past five years is any indication, Ms Banerjee will have to keep a very sharp eye on her colleagues: the minor reverses that the Trinamool has suffered are in those very places such as Nandigram or in South 24 Parganas, which it had wrested from the Left in 2008.