The upcoming panchayat election in West Bengal has emerged as one of most violent local body elections in the country in recent times. With only a few days left for the July 8 polls, 15 people have already lost their lives in the violence which started soon after notification for the polls was issued on June 8.
Preliminary estimates suggest that about 12% of the 73,000 seats at the three tier panchayats have been won uncontested by Trinamool Congress. During the withdrawal process 9.13% nominations, mainly filed by supporters of Opposition parties, were withdrawn.
Elections in West Bengal are a violent affair and the panchayat elections, where the number of contesting candidates goes up to a few lakhs, have time and again been marred by political muscle flexing and area domination by violent means. In the 2018 panchayat polls, about 34% seats were won uncontested by the ruling Trinamool Congress and 17.66% nominations were withdrawn during the election process.
While more seats will be going for contest in the panchayat elections in 2023, allegations including preventing candidates from filing nomination, forcing the candidates to withdraw nomination and intimidating political opponents have come to the fore in this election. Candidates from the Opposition parties as well as independents had to go into hiding after filing nomination papers.
Over the last month, during the run up to the rural polls, the debate has been centered on the deployment of central forces.
The Calcutta High Court intervened in the panchayat election process through its orders on June 13 and June 15, which were upheld by the Supreme Court on June 20. The High Court had stressed on the need of deployment of central forces for panchayat polls. On June 21, the High Court directed that central forces not less than those deployed in the 2013 panchayat polls will be requisitioned by the State Election Commission (SEC).
It was only on July 3 that Centre accepted the SEC proposal to deploy 822 companies, which are commensurate to the forces deployed in 2013 panchayat polls that was held across five phases. Even with the massive deployment of central forces, the SEC cannot provide two armed personnel at each of the 61,636 polling booths in the State, since the voting will take place on a single day.
Moreover, instances of lawlessness are not limited to polling booths and are rampant in the rural habitations particularly after dusk. The presence of the central forces can provide some assurance but cannot completely prevent violence. Therefore, the deployment of central forces, when crucial phases like nomination and withdrawal are over, is, therefore, not likely to make much of an impact on the ground as far as the election process is concerned.
The 2021 Assembly election in West Bengal was held in eight phases with substantial deployment of central forces. But soon after the results there was large-scale post poll violence. The Calcutta High Court had in August 2021 directed CBI investigation into the post poll violence and by January 2022, the central agency had registered more than 50 cases which included murder and sexual assault.
Unlike the post poll violence in the 2021 Assembly polls, supporters of all political parties — CPI (M), Congress, BJP, ISF, and even Trinamool — have been killed during the ongoing election process. There have not only been inter party clashes but intra party clashes have resulted in deaths.
Most of those killed after nomination for rural polls was announced are supporters of Trinamool Congress. The victims are from the State’s economically backward communities and most of them are minorities. Certain district like South 24 Parganas, Murshidabad and Cooch Behar have reported more incidents of violence that others and as State’s Governor C. V. Ananda Bose pointed out, the violence is isolated in certain pockets.
Violence is a major disruptor of political processes and elections held under the garb of violence can neither be free nor fair. The fault lines lie with the West Bengal State Election Commission deciding to hold a mammoth exercise involving 63,239 seats at gram panchayat level, 9,730 seats at panchayat samities and 928 zilla parishad seats on a single day. The Commission from the beginning has shied away from deployment of central forces and by the time the forces arrived in the State the violence had claimed over dozen lives.
The State Election Commissioner Rajiva Sinha, who came out with the notification only a day after taking up the office, appeared to be in a hurry to hold the panchayat elections. Even after the notification, the SEC has also failed to carry out its responsibility to provide succor to the citizens of West Bengal, who were prevented from filing nomination papers or were threatened after filing of nominations.
Governor of West Bengal C. V. Ananda Bose had to intervene and open up a control room at Raj Bhawan and visit several places that had been affected by political violence. There is a denial on the part of the State administration to acknowledge the incidents of poll related violence which has further aggravated the situation.
As far as the attitude of the ruling Trinamool Congress in the State is concerned, there appears to be remarkable similarities between the CPI(M)-led Left Front, who towards the end of the tenure was quite unabashed about using brute force and vehemently protested the requisitioning of central forces to conduct any elections in the State.
Panchayats in the State are already riddled with allegations of corruption and funds to key schemes like MGNREGA have been stalled by the Centre. If the newly elected bodies do not reflect the true mandate of the people, it will be a challenge for these local bodies to provide services to the people for another five years.