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An emphatic victory

Print edition : Jun 06, 2003 T+T-

Scoring a thumping majority in the elections to the local bodies, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front once again proves its unchallenged position in West Bengal.

in Kolkata

WITH the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front (L.F.) scoring a landslide victory in the May 11 elections to local bodies in West Bengal, the ruling coalition has demonstrated yet again that its position in rural Bengal was unassailable. The L.F. won the majority of seats in all the three tiers of grassroots-level administration - zilla parishads, panchayat samitis and gram panchayats. It retained control over 15 of the 17 zilla parishads and the majority of the middle-level panchayat samitis and the lower-level gram panchayats, with thumping majorities.

While the Trinamul Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party combine fared dismally, the Congress(I) improved its position by securing a majority in the Murshidabad zilla parishad and emerging as the single largest party in the Malda zilla parishad, where it is ahead of the L.F. (15 seats) by a single seat. The T.C. and the BJP won one seat each.

The L.F.'s share of seats at the gram panchayat level has gone up: it won about 70 per cent (34,105 seats) of the 49,144 seats, an increase of about 12 percentage points from its score in the 1998 elections. The T.C.-BJP combine won 14.6 per cent of the gram panchayat seats (7,203) - a fall of 12.1 percentage points. The Congress(I), which had won 10 per cent of the gram panchayat seats in 1998, managed to increase its seats by nearly 2 percentage points (5,751).

The Opposition failed to make any impact in the panchayat samitis and the zilla parishads. Of the total 8,500 seats in the panchayat samitis, the L.F. won about 74.3 per cent (6,318 seats), an increase of 8 percentage points from it performance in 1998. Of the 713 seats in the zilla parishads, the L.F. won about 86 per cent (612 seats), down by one percentage point over 1998. The L.F. won unopposed about 11 per cent (6,027) of the total of 58,357 seats in the three-tier panchayat bodies.

As expected, in the nine-party L.F., the CPI(M)'s performance was remarkable. The party won 547 (76.7 per cent) seats in the zilla parishads, 5,755 (67.7 per cent) in the panchayat samitis and 30,579 (62.2 per cent) in the gram panchayats. While the Congress(I) won 68 seats in the zilla parishads, the T.C. won 15 and the BJP two.

THE results indicate that the T.C.-BJP combine failed miserably to make inroads into the L.F.'s support base in rural West Bengal. In at least two districts, the combine's defeat owed a lot to a resurgent Congress(I). The BJP in particular has been mauled badly: it won only 146 seats in the panchayat samitis and 1,260 in the gram panchayats. The districtwise results indicate that the combine fared badly in areas with substantial Muslim populations; Muslim votes in these areas went either to the CPI(M) or to the Congress(I).

Moreover, the results indicate that T.C. chairperson and former Union Minster Mamata Banerjee's rhetoric and emotive appeal did not compensate for her party's organisational weaknesses, thus allowing the Congress(I) to steal a march over the T.C. Since the filing of nominations, the T.C. chief had been wary of a Congress(I) resurgence, as the party had the potential to effect a split in her own party. She knew that the L.F. would emerge victorious in the elections. For her, it was a question whether the T.C. would be able to maintain its status as the principal Opposition party in the State. If the results are anything to go by, she has been upstaged by the Congress(I). Her allegations about "CPI(M)-sponsored pre-poll violence" and her demands for the Centre's intervention and inquiries by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into poll-related violence found little appeal in the rural electorate.

Meanwhile, a section of the T.C. is unhappy over the party's performance. Party workers from Nadia, Birbhum, Hooghly and Malda districts voiced their displeasure at a party meeting shortly after the results were known. They demanded that the leadership explain the reasons for the party's failure to make a dent on the Congress(I)'s support base. A party worker from South 24 Parganas said that in several districts the party remained divided, with one group working under the district convener and the other under the election agent or the party president. At a meeting of T.C. Members of the Legislative Assembly and Members of Parliament held on May 16, some MLAs held Mamata Banerjee responsible for the poor performance. Mamata left the meeting in a huff, as is her wont, and threatened to resign from the post of party chairperson.

However, Mamata Banerjee maintained that the CPI(M)'s "terror tactics" were responsible for her party's dismal performance. The T.C. president, who preferred to stay in Kolkata during the run-up to the polls without meeting the district leaders of her party, made it a practice to accuse the CPI(M) of resorting to "terror tactics" in order to prevent her candidates from filing their nominations. Her provocative statements provided enough ground for pre-poll tension in some rural areas and provoked clashes between supporters of the L.F. and the T.C. Legislators of the T.C. have decided to boycott the next Assembly session, starting from June 26, and all standing committee meetings in protest against "the large-scale violence in the recent panchayat polls". T.C. MLAs and MPs have also decided to meet the President, Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister to apprise them of the situation arising out of "the CPI(M)-sponsored violence before and during the panchayat polls".

Adding to the T.C.'s concerns was the Congress(I)'s success in making inroads into its bases in several places. Apart from retaining its traditional hold on north Bengal, the Congress(I) appeared to have dealt a blow to the T.C. in North and South 24 Parganas, Nadia, Birbhum, Murshidabad, Malda, Howrah and Midnapur districts. In South 24 Parganas, which lies close to Mamata Banerjee's South Calcutta Lok Sabha constituency, the Congress(I) improved its tally from 35 to 61 panchayat samiti seats.

However, none in the Congress(I) talked about taking on the L.F. on the strength of the party's performance because the gap between the champion and the runner-up is huge. Congress(I) leaders appeared very happy about the success over Mamata Banerjee who had left the party five years ago and formed the T.C. Congress(I) leader and former West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee (WBPCC) president Somen Mitra said that the results had shown that contrary to the "systematic propaganda" carried on by the CPI(M) and the T.C.-BJP combine that the Congress(I) had ceased to exist in West Bengal, the party was "alive and kicking". He said that though Mamata Banerjee had claimed that the T.C. had been floated to "finish off the CPI(M)", in reality her objective was to destroy the Congress(I).

ALTHOUGH the voter turnout this time was high - according to State Election Commissioner Ajoy Singh, it was about 80 per cent - the elections were not as peaceful as they were on previous occasions. There was violence involving the death of several persons before and on the day of polling, in various parts of the State. Altogether 41 persons were reported to have been killed in poll-related violence. Giving a list of party cadre killed, the CPI(M) State leadership denied the Opposition's allegation that the violence was a "one-sided attack on their supporters by the CPI(M) cadre". The party lost 26 activists in poll-related violence. A CPI(M) candidate for the Jamboni panchayat samiti in West Midnapur district, Basudeb Bhakat, was killed allegedly by Jharkhand Party activists. Bhakat, a local committee secretary of the CPI(M), was abducted by Jharkhand Party supporters on polling day and hacked to death in a nearby forest. "The list of persons killed tells its own story. If we were that powerful and the violence was one-sided, would so many of our cadre be sacrificed?" asked a CPI(M) leader. The people killed in poll-related violence in the State between April 8 and May 11 also included eight activists of the Congress(I), two of the T.C., two of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), and one each of the Jharkhand Party, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Communist Party of India (CPI).

CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Anil Biswas hailed the party's landslide victory. He said that the reversals suffered by the L.F. in the Murshidabad and Malda zilla parishads, were "part of the democratic process in which any party may win or lose".

Congratulating the people of West Bengal, CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet said: "The victory of the Left Front and the CPI(M) is a reaffirmation of confidence in the policies and performances of the Left Front and its government. Land reforms for the rural poor and democratic participation and rights for the rural people achieved through the panchayat system is a model for the whole country."

L.F. chairman and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Biman Bose said that the Front constituents, despite differences among themselves in matters relating to seat- sharing, would remain united while forming boards in the newly elected panchayat bodies. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been entrusted with the task of resolving the differences that had developed among certain L.F. constituents over the allotment of seats. The CPI(M) Polit Bureau also called for steps to strengthen the unity among L.F. constituents at the grassroots level.