Alarm bells: on the violence in the West Bengal panchayat elections

Grassroots politics is now a high-stakes game of violence in West Bengal 

July 11, 2023 12:10 am | Updated 11:48 am IST

The extent of violence in the West Bengal panchayat elections, though numbing, was not totally unexpected. In all, 36 people lost their lives in the violence that spread across several districts of the State for almost a month in the run-up to the elections; 18 people died on the day of elections, on July 8. Opposition parties had expressed their apprehension that the elections would be marred by violence if proper steps were not taken. Despite several interventions by the Calcutta High Court, which directed the deployment of central forces at all polling booths, the West Bengal State Election Commission failed on several counts. What proved costly was the State Election Commission’s decision to conduct the huge exercise of three-tier rural elections across 61,636 polling booths on a single day, its reluctance to seek central forces, and the subsequent delay in requisitioning forces when directed by the High Court. The central forces arrived late and were deployed in a haphazard manner.

Infighting in the ruling Trinamool Congress has also been a major contributor to the violence. Besides this, in places where the Opposition could put up some resistance, there was bitter fighting between the Trinamool Congress on the one side, and the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party on the other. The Trinamool Congress’s dominance on the ground, which remained unquestioned for a decade, is now facing resistance in several places. More than half of those killed in the violence during the elections were supporters of the ruling party. In the panchayat polls in 2018, the Trinamool Congress had won about 34% seats without any contest; this time round, it was about 12%. The control of panchayats helps in political dominance at the local level, and controlling the rural economy. Also, the cadres, who provide the muscle, have a direct stake in the outcome. Elections in West Bengal are rarely peaceful and with two lakh candidates in the fray, the local functionaries did not want to concede any ground. While the State Election Commission was found wanting, the political leadership will also have to take a lot of the blame for allowing the elections to local bodies turn into a matter of life and death. There are also some structural reasons that make grassroots politics so competitive and violent in West Bengal. With high unemployment and scarce activity in the formal sector resulting in extreme competition for political posts, in turn leading to extraction and corruption, the State is caught in a debilitating cycle. The violence and the chaos on Saturday should act as a wake-up call for the State’s political class.

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