The Trinamool Congress registered a massive victory in the July 8 panchayat elections in West Bengal—79 per cent of the 3,317 gram panchayats; 92 per cent of the 341 panchayat samities; and all the 20 zilla parishads—and once again stamped its dominance over its political opponents in the State. However, as one of the bloodiest political battles in recent times, in which 50 people died, the rural election exercise demonstrated yet again that violence and rigging have become the norm in Bengal’s electoral politics. What impact this will have on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s ranking in the pantheon of the new INDIA alliance time will tell, but in the immediate term what should worry the Trinamool more are some emerging trends from the rural elections.
From the nomination phase until the day of counting, more than 40 deaths were reported, including 18 on election day, and the blood-letting did not stop even after the results were declared, taking the toll to over 50. Even a section of the Trinamool leadership expressed regret and disapproval. Humayun Kabir, the high-profile Trinamool MLA from Debra, said: “As a Bengali, I hang my head in shame... it is shameful that even in 2023, we could not stop this culture of violence.... We don’t witness so much violence in any other place.”
Perhaps the most poignant and damning indictment of the ruling party was the sight of Reshmi Mondal Ghosh, a Trinamool gram panchayat candidate from Ashoknagar in South Kolkata, storming out of the polling station on election day and exasperatedly blurting out, with the media watching, “I did not want to win in this way.”
The Trinamool did not really need to win “in this way”. It would have won convincingly without all the violence and the alleged rigging on the strength of its successful implementation of welfare schemes such as Lakshmir Bhandar, Rupashree, Kanyashree, Duare Ration and Swasthya Sathi. The chain of dependency that these schemes established helped the party reap electoral dividends time and again in rural Bengal. Besides, the BJP, the Left Front, the Congress, and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) are nowhere close to the ruling party’s organisational strength at the grassroots.
Corruption allegations, however, have long been a thorn on the Trinamool’s side. The practice of grassroots leaders taking “cut money” (bribes for implementing government-funded welfare projects and routine services) has been bothering a sizeable section of the rural population for quite some time. Several top party leaders of the party who went as emissaries of Didi, or Mamata, as part of the “Didir Doot” programme in the districts experienced this first-hand in the form of people’s anger.
More embarrassment for the Trinamool has come in the form of investigations by Central agencies into various scams, including in school service recruitment, illegal coal mining and transportation, and cattle smuggling. The well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty said: “If the Trinamool had won in a fair manner it would have sent a positive message. But the excesses it committed served to keep alive allegations of malpractice and corruption made against it.”
- The Trinamool Congress’s massive victory in the 2023 panchayat elections in West Bengal once again served to stamp the party’s dominance over all opponents in every sphere of politics in the state.
- The ruling party’s victory was mired in controversy and bloodshed, highlighting how violence and rigging have become the norm in Bengal’s electoral politics.
- The Congress, the Left, and the ISF have together garnered a significant percentage of the votes, a trend which might end up helping the Trinamool Congress by splitting the opposition vote.
- However, the alienation of a section of Muslim voters from the Trinamool is bad news for West Bengal’s ruling party.
The violence has also dented the credibility of the top Trinamool leadership, which promised a fair and peaceful election. Just before the elections, Trinamool general secretary and Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee completed a 60-day outreach programme (starting on April 25), titled Nabo Jowar, to encourage free and fair rural elections and bolster the party’s grassroots organisation. Earlier in April, Abhishek, who is Mamata’s nephew and political heir, reportedly warned the party’s district leaders that there should not be a repeat of 2018. Those elections were notoriously violent, and 34 per cent of the total seats went uncontested to the Trinamool. The party felt the impact in the 2019 Lok Sabha election when its seat count fell to 22 from 34 in 2014 out of the total 42 seats.
While Abhishek Banerjee’s warning went unheeded, his tweet on July 11 when the trends pointed to a sweep for the Trinamool, reflected no apprehension about the fallout of the violence. “With unwavering support to #TrinamooleNaboJowar, we’ll surely have a roaring mandate, paving the way for LS elections…” he tweeted.
Cracks are showing
Notwithstanding the Trinamool leadership’s attempts to underplay the violence, the party could not deny that since assuming power in 2011 for the first time it faced violent resistance from the opposition. Disgruntled Trinamool members who were denied the party ticket also turned rebellious and contested as independents in many places under the aegis of influential local leaders and legislators. The majority of those killed in the month-long violence were Trinamool activists, and a substantial number died in factional fights.
According to Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, professor of sociology and a political observer, the kind of resistance witnessed in the elections can only mean that the Trinamool is losing its hegemonic presence in Bengal politics. “The cracks are showing and that does not bode well for Trinamool,” he said.
He pointed out that election time is often considered opportune for settling personal scores in the guise of political violence. “There is deep resentment among those who wish for a piece of the pie and are not getting it,” said Mukhopadhyay. In this industry-starved State, political and economic power in rural areas is directly related to the distribution and disbursal of relief and employment through government schemes. “The panchayat is central to village-level governance. Since government schemes are routed through the panchayat, there are crores to be made from it. As a result, there is a desperate fight to control panchayats. It is not so much about ideology, it is a struggle for economic dominance,” said Mukhopadhyay.
Even the Calcutta High Court could not resist commenting on the monetary gains linked with winning a panchayat seat. Justice Amrita Sinha, while hearing a matter relating to the violence, observed: “I may be wrong, but I think winning an election means getting a job for five years. If one wins an election, one can earn money. That is why so much is happening.”
Another possible cause of concern for the Trinamool is the apparent alienation of a section of the Muslim vote in some places. “In Uttar Dinajpur, our studies have revealed a shift in Muslim votes of around 5 per cent in favour of the Sanyukta Morcha [the electoral understanding between the Left, the Congress and the ISF]; in Murshidabad, it shifted 14 per cent away from the Trinamool. Such instances can also be found in North and South 24 Parganas,” said Biswanath Chakraborty.
This trend was also seen in the byelection to the Sagardighi constituency held in March. The Trinamool had won this seat, which has a minority population of over 68 per cent, for three consecutive terms. The Congress won it this time by nearly 23,000 votes.
BJP fails to make a mark
Things do not look too good for the BJP either. It managed to secure only 22.8 per cent of the votes and lost heavily even in places where its organisation is considered relatively strong–Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram and the Jangalmahal (the contiguous forest areas of Bankura, Purulia, Jhargram and Paschim Medinipur). On the other hand, the combined vote share of the Left (12.56 per cent), the Congress (6.42 per cent) and the ISF (2 per cent) stood at nearly 21 per cent, indicating a possible revival of the Left and the Congress in Bengal politics. Political observers point out that the rise of the Sanyukta Morcha can actually help the Trinamool by splitting the opposition vote. A split in the Muslim vote, however, is bad news for the ruling party.
Whether the BJP will be able to take advantage of the situation is doubtful. Since the Trinamool sweep in 2021, the saffron party’s vote percentage has dropped with every successive election. Jagannath Sarkar, BJP MP from Ranaghat, insisted that it would be incorrect to assess the BJP in Bengal on the basis of the panchayat elections. “With the kind of rigging, violence and intimidation that Trinamool inflicted on the people, it is ridiculous to consider it as the true will of rural Bengal. The police and the ruling party worked together to ensure a Trinamool victory. The people will give their answer in the 2024 election just as they did in 2019,” he told Frontline.
On July 18, as Mamata Banerjee joined the opposition strategy meeting for the 2024 election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the issue of the panchayat election violence in Bengal. He said: “You have seen the widespread violence and continuous bloodshed taking place in Bengal. The Left and Congress leaders have not uttered a word on this.”