Local elections

Demeaning democracy

Print edition : June 08, 2018

In Malda district in West Bengal, ballot papers being burnt during the local body elections on May 14. Photo: AFP

Trinamool Congress supporters celebrating the party’s victory in the panchayat elections, in North 24 Paraganas on May 17. Photo: PTI

Vehicles set on fire and people injured in the poll violence in Nadia district on election day. Photo: PTI

At Memari in Burdwan district, ballot boxes being retrieved from the pond they were thrown into. Photo: PTI

The Trinamool Congress sweeps the panchayat elections amid widespread violence and allegations of large-scale rigging.

MAMATA BANERJEE’S Trinamool Congress registered a massive victory in the 2018 panchayat elections, but it was achieved at a high cost as it dented the reputation of the ruling party and adversely affected the democratic fabric of West Bengal. In what is being perceived as one of the bloodiest and most violently manoeuvred rural elections in recent Indian history, the Trinamool Congress won 95 per cent of the zilla parishads, nearly 83 per cent of the panchayat samitis, and nearly 68 per cent of the gram panchayats (counting had not yet ended at the time of writing this report). The opposition was simply swept away. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came a distant second, securing just 4 per cent of the zilla parishad seats, 10 per cent of the panchayat samitis, and 18 per cent of the gram panchayats. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front could manage only 0.2 per cent of the zilla parishads, 1.9 per cent of the panchayat samitis and 5.3 per cent of the gram panchayats. The Congress got 1 per cent of the zilla parishads, 2.6 per cent of the panchayat samitis and 3.3 per cent of the gram panchayats. The rest of the seats were won by independent candidates who were mostly dissidents of the ruling party. Six of the zilla parishads in the State are now completely without any opposition members. The panchayat elections in West Bengal were held on May 14, in a single phase, with 38,616 seats (out of a total of 58,692 seats) going to the polls.

However, the fact that around 34 per cent of the total seats (20,076) in the three-tier panchayat system went uncontested allegedly because of the Trinamool’s strong-arm tactics right from the stage of nomination for election took the sheen off this victory. In the previous elections in 2013, the Trinamool seized control of 13 of 17 zilla parishads, 214 out of 329 panchayat samitis and 1,783 of 3,215 gram panchayats. That year it won 6,274 seats uncontested—a number that seems insignificant compared with this year’s figures. Significantly, in the course of the past five years, the Trinamool has managed to bring under its fold all the zilla parishads and almost all the panchayat samitis.

On the day of the election, reportedly more than 15 people lost their lives in the violence that did not spare any part of the State. It began the previous night when Debprasad and Usharani Das, a couple who were CPI(M) supporters, were burnt alive in their hut in Kakdwip, South 24 Paraganas, allegedly by Trinamool miscreants. The ruling party denied having any hand in the incident and claimed that the couple had died from a fire caused by an electrical short circuit in the house. As the voting progressed, the violence intensified and the killings increased. The lush green countryside of West Bengal resembled a smoky, blood-stained war zone as political parties waged pitched battles against one another. It was not just rival parties that were seen to be at war; in many places different factions of the Trinamool too were engaged in a deadly struggle against each other. While the State Election Commission (SEC) and the State government insisted that only six people had lost their lives, the failure of the State administration, the police and the SEC became all too evident as ordinary voters too fell victim to the violence. In many instances, lack of adequate security for the voters deterred them from exercising their franchise.

The situation degenerated rapidly into a mockery of the election process and an affront to democracy as political goons began to jam booths, drive out election observers and loot ballot boxes. Miscreants were seen breaking open sealed ballot boxes in full public view and setting the ballot papers on fire or dumping them in local ponds. Trinamool leaders such as Abdul Jamil Ahmed, a zilla parishad candidate in Cooch Behar, openly threatened opposition polling agents inside the election booths and the voters lined up outside. The Trinamool top brass was seen either in a state of denial or trying to establish a sense of normalcy by drawing comparisons with the violence during elections in the CPI(M) era. “There are minor incidents taking place, no major incidents have been reported. Administration is active in places where such clashes have taken place. Voting is being conducted peacefully,” said State Education Minister and Trinamool Congress secretary general Partha Chatterjee.

The Trinamool’s Rajya Sabha member and chief national spokesperson Derek O’ Brien posted on social media thus: “To all ‘newborn’ experts on Bengal, panchayat elections in State have a history. 400 killed in poll violence in 1990s in CPI(M) rule. 2003: 40 dead. Every death is a tragedy. Now closer to normal than earlier times. Yes, few dozen incidents. Say, 40 out of 58,000 booths. What’s percentage? [sic].” Even West Bengal Director General of Police Surajit Kar Purkayastha was seen toeing the party line. “There were a few sporadic incidents, but nothing major has happened…. But this year, this panchayat elections, the number of deaths and the incidents of deaths and violence have been much lower than previous panchayat elections,” he said. Only one voice remained conspicuous by its silence, that of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Widespread rigging

The violence did not end with the end of polling. On May 15, more deaths were reported, including that of a presiding officer, taking the toll to over 20. Rajkumar Roy, 42, a schoolteacher who was carrying out his duty as a presiding officer in North Dinajpur, was found dead on the railway tracks a day later. The SEC ordered repolling in 573 booths, as against 21 booths in the 2013 rural elections, but could do little to stop the rigging of the elections, which, surprisingly, continued even on the day of the counting of votes on May 17. In one of the counting centres in Nadia district, where the CPI(M) candidate was seen to be winning, Trinamool activists forced themselves into the counting room and began to stamp the ballot papers with the Trinamool symbol.

What is puzzling many people is that though the Trinamool would have won convincingly in free and fair elections, right from the start the ruling party made sure that there was no scope for any kind of proper elections. From the point when the elections were announced on March 31, violence took over the electoral process. The opposition parties were not even allowed to file their nominations, and before even the first vote was cast, 33 people were reportedly killed in the violence.

Finally, out of the 48,560 gram panchayat seats, 31,789 went to the polls; out of the 9,217 panchayat samiti seats, voting took place in 6,119; and out of the 825 zilla parishad seats, elections were held in 621. The Trinamool contested 99.77 per cent of the total seats (38,443 seats), the BJP in 73.09 per cent (28,162 seats), the Left Front in 56.07 per cent (21,502 seats) and the Congress in 19.97 per cent (7,695 seats).

Though officially 34 per cent of the seats went uncontested at the gram panchayat and panchayat samiti levels and 22 per cent at the zilla parishad level, according to the psephologist and political observer Biswanath Chakraborty, the actual figure would be around 40 per cent. “In addition to the 34 per cent of uncontested seats, in about 6 per cent of the cases either the Trinamool had put up dummy candidates or the opposition space was occupied by rival factions of the Trinamool itself. In a number of cases we have seen that even after the withdrawal date, opposition candidates were forced by the ruling party to announce that they would not be contesting the elections and even write a statement to that effect. This happened mostly in North 24 Paraganas, Howrah, Hooghly, Purbo Medinipur, Murshidabad, and in some parts of Bankura, and East and West Bardhaman,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

There are several reasons why the Trinamool may have been so desperate to dominate the panchayats so overwhelmingly. First, in an industry-starved State like West Bengal, government projects and schemes at the panchayat and municipal levels are the main source of income generation. Whoever controls the panchayat controls the economy of that part of the rural region.

There may also have been a strong political factor working behind the Trinamool’s aggressive and violent determination not to allow any space to the opposition. According to Chakraborty, victory at the panchayat level has a direct bearing on the Lok Sabha elections. “In West Bengal time and again we have seen that whichever party wins the panchayat elections has the upper hand in the parliamentary elections. It is the panchayat that distributes the benefits to the masses, and thus a patron-client relationship is further strengthened. Moreover, with the BJP gaining ground in the State, and winning in Tripura, the Trinamool may also feel that if it allows the BJP to strengthen itself at the grass-roots level, this would spell danger for the party,” he said.

BJP's surprise

The BJP, interestingly, produced a few surprises of its own at the gram panchayat level by giving the Trinamool a run for its money in its own bastion, the Jangalmahal (the contiguous forested area of the districts of Pashchim Medinipur, Bankura, Purulia and Jhargram). In Jhargram, the BJP won 328 gram panchayat seats against the Trinamool’s 373. The BJP also made inroads into some of the tribal areas of north Bengal, particularly Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri.

The Congress, on the other hand, suffered setbacks in its strongholds of the minority-dominated districts of Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur, where the Trinamool won overwhelmingly. It became clear that with the BJP emerging as the second power in the State, there is a consolidation of minority votes in favour of the Trinamool. This trend was also seen in parts of south Bengal, particularly in the districts of North and South 24 Paraganas and Nadia.

For a while a cloud of uncertainty loomed over the date of the elections. Initially, the SEC had announced that the elections would be held in three phases, on May 1, 3 and 5. However, with the escalation of violence during nomination and the opposition parties moving court, the election process was stalled. At the instance of the Calcutta High Court, the SEC on April 23 rescheduled the polling in a single phase on May 14. In an important development, on May 8, the division bench of Justices Biswanath Samaddar and Arindam Mukherjee directed the SEC to accept e-nominations, and on May 10, the division bench of Chief Justice Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya and Justice Arijit Banerjee reposed its faith and trust in the SEC and gave its nod for the elections to be held on May 14. The court order came with certain riders: If the violence during elections exceeded the violence during the 2013 panchayat elections, then the State government would have to pay compensation to the victims, which would be derived from the salary of the officers who had made the arrangement for the security during the voting. The same day the Supreme Court stayed the e-nominaiton order and ordered that the SEC should not issue any notification for the 34 per cent uncontested victories. The apex court will hear the matter again on July 3.

The violence and the deaths surrounding the elections have once again brought to the fore questions relating to the conduct and role of the SEC and the State administration. West Bengal has a history of violence during panchayat elections. In 2003, the death toll stood at 76; in 2008, it was 31; in 2013, 25; and it was reportedly more than 20 this year. In spite of that, political observers feel that there appeared to have been a wilful disregard for facts and past experiences on the part of the SEC and the State government in conducting the elections. Despite repeated demands by the opposition to requisition Central armed forces, the SEC insisted on conducting the polls in the total 58,692 booths with just 71,500 armed police personnel and 80,000 civic volunteers who are not adequately trained to tackle law and order situations. The SEC could only provide one armed policeman at each polling booth, and the inadequacy of the security arrangement was evident when armed goons stormed the polling stations and the police could only watch helplessly. In several places the police themselves were severely attacked.

After the results were declared, Mamata Banerjee finally broke her silence and expressed her condolences to the families of those killed in the violence. “The majority of those killed were from the Trinamool Congress. We will be helping them, and we will see if we can also provide compensation to the families of the supporters of other parties who had lost their lives,” she said.

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