Victory amid violence: on West Bengal panchayat elections

The exact scale of the ruling Trinamool Congress’s victory in the May 14 panchayat elections in West Bengal is still a matter of conjecture, as the fate of the uncontested seats is before the Supreme Court. The next hearing is on July 3. The Opposition, comprising mainly the Left Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party, did not field a candidate in more than a third of the 58,792 seats in the three tiers put together. Should the court clear the TMC’s claim to these seats, it will be the first time since the three-tier rural poll was instituted in 1978 that one-third of the seats have been bagged without even a semblance of a fight. When the results of the contested seats were announced on May 17, it was clear that the TMC had outperformed its rivals, bagging two-thirds at the lowest gram panchayat level. Across the three levels, the TMC secured 76% of the contested seats, the proportion that the Left Front had won in the 2003 panchayat election. Some smartly tailored cash transfer schemes directed at the rural poor, combined with a reasonable upgrade of rural-urban infrastructure, appear to have paid off for the ruling party. Yet, instead of being upbeat and relaxed, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has sounded defensive, alleging that many interest groups had “ganged up” against her. Her defensiveness drew from the unprecedented violence in the run-up to the polls. Around 50 people were killed; the security provided for the election was clearly insufficient, and lumpen elements had a free run.

The TMC and the BJP accuse each other of fomenting the violence. In West Bengal, panchayat elections have always been marred by trouble. But the kind of ferocity of the violence before and during last week’s poll has not been seen since the Left Front was ousted after 34 years in power in 2011. The TMC is run as a tight ship, with the party exercising complete control over its cadre. The State government clearly failed in checking the violence, either on account of incompetence or some deep sense of insecurity. The rise of the BJP in the State is not that sharp, but it appears to be enough to have unsettled the TMC. The BJP captured one-fourth of the contested seats in these panchayat elections. In five years, the BJP’s vote share at the gram panchayat level has gone up from 1% to 18%, whereas the Left Front’s share dropped from 32% to 5%, and the Congress’s from 11% to 3%. In fact, the BJP’s growth curve is rather similar to that of the TMC a decade ago, and it has made no secret of its ambition to try to dislodge the TMC in the 2021 Assembly polls. Ms. Banerjee has been extremely vocal in rallying anti-BJP parties to band together at the State and national levels. But it remains to be seen whether her party has, in fact, ended up damaging itself with the no-holds-barred tactics at the ground level in the panchayat polls.

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Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 4:45:58 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/victory-amid-violence/article59780647.ece