Trinamool’s victory in the panchayat elections, while marred by allegations of malpractice, brightens its prospects in the 2014 general election

It was not quite the level playing field for which the election authorities had battled the State government in court for three months. But rural West Bengal has delivered its verdict. With the Lok Sabha election less than a year away, it is a race against time for the major political players as they try to absorb the lessons from the eighth panchayat election in the State.

Test for Trinamool

The ruling Trinamool Congress notched up an emphatic victory in the polls, winning 13 out of the 17 zilla parishads, exactly as the Left Front had done in 2008. The victory, though, comes laced with some concerns. Hidden beneath its success is the ceding of ground to its opponents in certain pockets on either side of the Ganges. These pockets have a predominantly Muslim population, which had backed the Trinamool in recent times. As for the Left Front — battered after a string of electoral defeats that began with the loss of four districts in the last panchayat elections — and the beleaguered Congress — that suffered a near washout — they have their work cut out.

If its performance in the polls is viewed through the prism of a general election, there is little doubt that the Trinamool Congress that has 19 MPs would increase its tally in the Lok Sabha even without forging an electoral pact with the Congress as it had done in 2009.

It is not without reason that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who has already set her sights on playing a pivotal role in cobbling together a national “third front” of non-Congress, non-BJP parties, described going the rural polls as an “agnipariksha (test by fire)”.

Even so, the Trinamool Congress leadership is worried about the dents made by the Left Front in certain areas considered the party’s turf in some districts of south Bengal, two of which are adjacent to Kolkata. For this, there is need for “introspection,” they admit, the resounding victory elsewhere in the State notwithstanding.

Wake-up call to Congress

After having to contend with playing second fiddle to the Trinamool Congress — whether in the successful electoral pact in the last Lok Sabha poll, the 2011 Assembly elections that swept Ms Banerjee to power or in the government led by her — the Congress is far from getting back on its feet since the alliance snapped in September last year.

These polls have amply indicated that but for one district, the ground beneath the Congress’s feet is giving way. By the time it is able to put its house in order, the parliamentary election might have come and gone.

No wonder a section of the Congress leadership is stressing the need to do away with the “sense of defeatism” and working towards putting up more than what has been “a half-hearted fight” against its former ally.

For Left, lost chance

As for the Left parties, the election results have come as a reminder that banking overly on a division in votes against them, with the unravelling of the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance, is no passport to improving their electoral prospects. They lost the chance to cash in on the widespread resentment, still fresh, in rural areas against the multi-crore ponzi scheme scam with which some leaders of the ruling party were allegedly associated, or the issue of farmers suicides or alleged atrocities against women.

But to retrieve lost ground and come anywhere near the position it held for 34 years the Left Front will have to do more than just focus on the failures of Ms Banerjee’s government.

Court battles

What held public attention prior to the electoral battle was the one that preceded it in the courts of law. At stake then was the very holding of the polls. Pitted against each other were two constitutional bodies — the State Election Commission and the State government.

The verbal duel between them continued beyond the courtrooms. Being held responsible by the ruling party of being partisan in favour of its opponents and the long-drawn five-phase elections on the pretext of the need for Central forces, the State Election Commissioner left it till after the results to answer back. The official made it clear that there was need for greater cooperation from the State government in the conduct of the polls, particularly in the context of matters related to security. This was the issue that had taken both parties to the courtrooms of the Calcutta High Court, the Supreme Court and back again to the Calcutta High Court.

The State government’s opposition “in principle” to the deployment of Central security forces, as sought by the poll panel, and its insistence that the State police force could provide the required security during the polls, fell flat in the court, which upheld the supremacy of the poll panel in the conduct of the elections. The ruling party hit back at the State Election Commission by ignoring many of its subsequent orders.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that the credibility of the elections was under scrutiny. Opposition parties alleged widespread electoral malpractices and intimidation by activists of the ruling party — both before and during the polls.

So much so that more than 10 per cent of the total seats went uncontested in the three-tier polls to the advantage of the Trinamool Congress candidates, which raised another set of questions on the fairness of these trials before the 2014 general election.

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