A Front's firm roots

Print edition : June 20, 1998

With its impressive performance in the May 28 elections to the local bodies in West Bengal, the ruling Left Front has demonstrated yet again that its support base in the rural areas remains intact.

THE results of the May 28 elections to local bodies in West Bengal have demonstrated yet again that the ruling Left Front's position in the State is unassailable. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Front won the majority of seats in all the three tiers of grassroots-level administration - zilla parishads, panchayat samitis and gram panchayats. In fact, the Left Front retained its sway over all the 16 zilla parishads, the most important power-lever in the panchayat structure.

The Trinamul Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party combine fared dismally in the elections, and this has strained the relations between the alliance partners. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee even announced that she was "suspending" her party's support to the BJP-led coalition Government at the Centre because it was "indifferent" to the Trinamul Congress' demand for the imposition of President's rule in West Bengal for alleged breakdown of law and order.

The Left Front's share of seats at the gram panchayat level, the lowest rung in the three-tier structure, went down marginally: of the 49,225 gram panchayat seats, it won about 58 per cent, down six percentage points since the previous elections in 1993. The Trinamul Congress-BJP combine won 26.6 per cent of the gram panchayat seats, and the Congress(I) about 10 per cent. But the Opposition failed to make any impact in the two upper rungs - the panchayat samitis and the zilla parishads. Of the 8,520 seats in the middle-tier panchayat samitis, the Left Front won about 69.3 per cent; this is four percentage points less than its share of seats in the previous elections. Of the 716 zilla parishad seats, the Left Front won about 87 per cent, up 10 percentage points over 1993.

The Trinamul Congress-BJP combine singularly failed to challenge the Left Front's support base in rural West Bengal, and its gains have come largely at the cost of the Congress(I). The BJP in particular has been mauled badly: it won only one of the 716 zilla parishad seats and secured a mere 5 per cent of the gram panchayat seats. The district-wise results indicate that the combine fared badly in areas with a substantial Muslim population; in these areas, the votes went either to the CPI(M) or to the Congress(I).

Villagers in 24 Parganas district in West Bengal queue up to vote in the May 28 elections to the local bodies.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

The Congress(I) lost considerable ground to the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine, much the same way as it did during the Lok Sabha elections in February-March. Its seat share at the gram panchayat-level plummeted from 26 per cent in 1993 to 10 per cent this time. However, given the state of the party, observers believe that even this performance is above par.

The Congress(I) contested these elections against tremendous odds. Barely five months ago, the State unit of the party split when Mamata Banerjee floated the Trinamul Congress; three months ago, the Congress(I) was drubbed in the Lok Sabha polls. There has been a heavy erosion in its support base as thousands of its workers have crossed over to the Trinamul Congress. To top it all, the Congress(I) in the State does not even have a president. So much so that the Congress(I) fielded candidates for only 24,000 gram panchayat seats.

Former State Congress(I) president Somen Mitra said that the results showed that contrary to the "systematic propaganda" carried on by the CPI(M) and the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine that the Congress(I) had ceased to exist in West Bengal, the Congress(I) "is alive and kicking". He said that although Mamata Banerjee had claimed that the Trinamul Congress was floated to "finish off the CPI(M)", in reality her objective was to destroy the Congress(I). "But," he said, "she has failed to achieve both her stated and unstated objectives." Mitra claimed that by weakening the Congress(I), Mamata Banerjee had helped the Left Front consolidate its strength. However, he said, the Congress(I), a 112-year-old party, could not be written off. "The party has staged a comeback several times in the past. I am sure we will overcome the present crisis. The panchayat election results have proved that Congress(I) workers' morale is high," he said.

A section of the Trinamul Congress is unhappy over the party's dismal 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 significant dent on the Left Front's support base despite considerable hype. A party worker from Nadia district said that in many districts the party was divided, with one group working under the district convener and the other under the election agent or the party president.

Holding the State unit of the BJP responsible for the combine's poor performance, Mamata Banerjee sought to distance herself from the saffron party by announcing a boycott of the Lok Sabha. She called it off after Union Home Minister L.K. Advani requested her to do so. She, however, made clear her displeasure that the BJP had not delivered on its promise to implement a "Bengal package". The BJP-led Government's failure to accede to her demand for the imposition of President's rule in the State is Mamata Banerjee's main grouse.

On June 2, Mamata Banerjee met Governor A.R. Kidwai and demanded the imposition of President's rule on the ground that West Bengal was a "lawless State". In a memorandum to the Governor, she alleged that there had been large-scale violence during the panchayat elections. On May 25, barely three days before the elections, she gave a call for a 12-hour "Bangla bandh", evidently to pressure the BJP-led coalition Government at the Centre to invoke Article 356 in West Bengal. The State Government reasoned that her "provocative act" was intended to create conditions of lawlessness in the State in order to strengthen her demand; it therefore made no attempt to frustrate the bandh.

THE performance of the Left Front, particularly the CPI(M), came as a morale booster for the cadres, more so because observers had said in the run-up to the elections that this time the ruling Front would face its most serious challenge. The CPI(M) has evidently retained its overwhelming supremacy in the agrarian belts; the party won 57 per cent of the gram panchayat seats, over 67 per cent of the panchayat samiti seats and about 85 per cent of the zilla parishad seats.

Observers said that the results were "unexpectedly" good for the CPI(M). In addition to an anticipated loss of votes to the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine, they had predicted that the CPI(M) would suffer on account of allegations of disruption of work in many panchayat bodies. A CPI(M) State secretariat member said, "In the backdrop of these negative factors, the results have given the leaders a renewed sense of confidence."

Chief Minister and CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Left Front chairman and secretary of the West Bengal unit of the CPI(M), Sailen Dasgupta, said that the panchayat results were encouraging. Chief Minister Jyoti Basu expressed happiness with the Left Front's performance.

Congratulating the people of West Bengal, the CPI(M) Polit Bureau said: "This 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."

Biman Bose, CPI(M) Central Committee member who oversees the party's organisational affairs in West Bengal, told Frontline that the Left Front constituents would remain united while forming boards in the newly-elected panchayat bodies. He said that the decision taken at the Committee meeting on June 3 was aimed at averting any rift within the Front, especially in those few areas where the partners contested against each other. Left Front leaders also decided not to have any truck with the few successful "dummy candidates" fielded by some of the constituents. Jyoti Basu took a firm stand on the matter and said that the dummy candidates, who did not obey the party's directive to withdraw in favour of the official candidates, were free to leave the party if they so wished. Left Front sources said that senior CPI leaders wanted guidelines to be framed for running panchayat bodies on the basis of consensus among the Front partners.

The Left Front is likely to push through a number of steps to improve the panchayats' functioning, which, however, were put on hold for long for fear of inviting an adverse reaction. Among the measures contemplated, according to Left Front sources, are generation of assets within the panchayats, more devolution of powers from the zilla parishads to the lower tiers, and a greater emphasis on social auditing and scrutiny of the functioning of panchayat bodies.

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