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Towards a landslide

Print edition : May 23, 2003 T+T-

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front appears poised to win the May 11 local body elections in West Bengal.

in Kolkata

INDICATIONS are that the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led ruling Left Front (L.F.) will win yet another convincing victory in the elections to the local bodies in West Bengal, to be held on May 11. About 2,50,000 candidates are in the fray for 58,357 seats in the three-tier local bodies - gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads. The CPI(M) and its partners in the L.F. have already won about 11 per cent (6,027) of the seats unopposed. The Opposition parties, particularly the Trinamul Congress (T.C.) and its ally the Bharatiya Janata Party, allege that the CPI(M)'s tactics of "threat and intimidation" prevented them from putting up candidates in many places. However, CPI(M) leaders dismissed such accusations and said that the Opposition's inability to field candidates reflected the "total lack of any organisational structure on their part" rather than any strong-arm methods.

Significantly, statements by senior Congress(I) leaders in the State seemed to endorse the CPI(M)'s view. West Bengal Congress(I) president Pranab Mukherjee said: "I am not willing to believe that in the last two years the CPI(M) has become so powerful that the Congress(I), which with the Trinamul bagged 1,20,000 votes in the last Assembly polls, is unable to contest even 50 per cent of the panchayat seats. Violence may be one of the factors, but no way is it the only factor. It is the apathy of Congress(I) workers and the lack of involvement that has resulted in such a poor show." West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya felt that "terror tactics" had played a crucial role in some parts of Bankura and West Midnapore districts, but asked: "How come we failed to register our presence in other areas?"

The nine-party Front won more than 80 per cent of the seats in the 1998 local body elections (Frontline, July 3, 1998). For the CPI(M), the coming elections provide an opportunity to demonstrate once again that its mass base in rural West Bengal is intact. Currently, the party is far ahead of its rivals on the campaign front, with Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee being the main campaigner. It has consolidated its organisational structure and developed grassroot level units in almost all villages. Having faced the Congress(I)-T.C. combine in the last Assembly elections, the CPI(M) is leaving nothing to chance in the panchayat elections in which the T.C., no longer an ally of the Congress(I), is contesting along with the BJP. Although the Congress(I) is contesting alone, in certain areas it is alleged to have struck a secret understanding with the Trinamul-BJP combine.

Despite initial differences of opinion among the constituents over the allotment of seats, the L.F. has been able to field consensus candidates. In order to remove any misunderstanding among the Front partners and to put up common candidates, the CPI(M) withdrew 1,256 of its candidates. CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Anil Biswas said: "We could do it in three days after the last date for withdrawal. Since there is no scope for pulling out officially, we have asked party units to announce the withdrawal through leaflets. Local party leaders took the decision in consultation with the public." L.F. chairman and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Biman Bose said the party had directed its district units to stick to the Front's decision and warned of action against violators. Bose said the had informed its cadres that there should not be "friendly contests" between Front candidates. In a circular sent to the district committees, the CPI(M) State committee reiterated its decision not to field party members who did not have a clean record. The Front constituents were asked to prevent intra-party squabbles.

The low turnout at a pre-election BJP rally in Kolkata on April 24 did not prevent party president M. Venkaiah Naidu and T.C. chief Mamata Banerjee from attacking the CPI(M). Venkaiah Naidu warned the CPI(M) that the Central government would not remain a silent spectator to the "terror run" in the rural areas. "There is a limit to everything. That 20,000 BJP and Trinamul candidates could not file nominations shows that democratic rights are being stifled," he alleged.

However, a visit to the rural areas reveals a different story. In a dismal show, the Opposition parties have failed even to employ their supporters for wall-writing or for organising village-level meetings. While the Congress(I) is virtually out of the picture, the Trinamul is in a state of disarray. This is largely because the T.C.'s faction-ridden, city-based leadership has shown no particular interest in rural development as envisaged under the panchayati raj system.

SINCE coming to power in 1977, the Left Front government has held panchayat elections every five years. The first round of panchayat elections in the State was held in 1978, when the L.F. had not yet developed an efficient system of coordination among its constituent parties. In fact, there was virtually no understanding among the constituents at the panchayat level at that time. The situation has stabilised since 1983.

Since 1978, the panchayats have undertaken several land reform measures, detected benami holdings of land and distributed them to poor farmers and maintained a record of bargadars (share-croppers). Local bodies in the State have taken the initiative in implementing schemes such as the National Rural Employment Programme, the Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme and the food-for-work programmes. About 50 per cent of the total State Budget for development is channelled through local bodies.

Biman Bose told Frontline that the process of decentralisation of economic and administrative power that was initiated by the L.F. government 25 years ago through the local bodies was virtually complete. Bose said that the growing support for the Left Front ever since it came to power in 1977 was itself a major feature of contemporary Indian politics. However, this was not the only reason why the government attracted nationwide attention. Bose said that the administrative principles and development strategies pursued by successive L.F. governments had been widely discussed and debated. He said that the new administrative ethos reflected in the local bodies catered to the needs of the common people and opened up an alternative path for development that put a premium on eradicating poverty and ensuring social justice.

One of the most distinctive achievements of the panchayat system in West Bengal is that it has established grassroots-level democracy firmly in the rural areas. The percentage of women members in panchayat bodies is over 35, of whom 28 per cent belong to the Scheduled Castes and 7 per cent to the Scheduled Tribes. The local bodies have, in close collaboration with the State government, taken over the planning, administration and implementation of a major part of developmental activities in the State. They have shaped themselves into a powerful force to usher in important social change.

The pro-poor character of panchayati raj institutions in West Bengal could be attributed to the class interests represented by their office-bearers and members. It was through the devolution of powers and resources that the L.F. revamped the local bodies, which had remained virtually inoperative and dead for 30 years under Congress governments. Within 10 years of 1978 the average flow of funds to zilla parishads on account of assigned programmes reached the figure of Rs.575 lakhs, about two-thirds of which was spent by them directly, the balance being passed on to panchayat samitis and gram panchayats. The average amount available to a panchayat samiti and a gram panchayat in 1987-88 amounted to Rs.21.2 lakhs and Rs.1.87 lakhs respectively.

Within the next two years, the flow to the local bodies increased by over 250 per cent, taking only the rural employment generation programmes into account. In the last 25 years the government has spent nearly Rs.2,000 crores through the local bodies, a major portion of which has been utilised to create employment opportunities and finance local development.

A significant feature of the local body elections is the reservation of one-third of the seats for women. The CPI(M) faced no difficulty in choosing women candidates, as there were many women who had played active roles in various party campaigns and rural development programmes. Mridul Dey, a senior CPI(M) leader and a member of the party's State secretariat, said that many panchayat organisations in West Bengal were headed by women. There is also an all-woman gram panchayat in West Midnapore district.

The rural community as a whole has recognised the fact that in order to be effective, panchayat members should be familiar with their villages well and their requirements and have the capacity to mobilise people for development work.

The L.F.'s strategy of paying greater attention to the rural areas has brought dividends in other ways too. It has won five Assembly elections in a row and has been in power for 25 years mainly because it has earned increasing support from the rural voters.