West Bengal

Trinamool’s triumph

Print edition : August 23, 2013

West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee at a campaign rally at Mathbhanga in Coochbehar district on July 22. Photo: PTI

Left Front chairman Biman Bose at a rally demanding free, fair and peaceful panchayat elections, in Kolkata on June 26. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

A house that was ransacked in a political clash during the third phase of the panchayat elections in Howrah district on July 20. Photo: PTI

The panchayat elections in West Bengal show that in spite of severe criticism from all quarters on various issues, the Trinamool Congress has not lost its grass-roots base.

MAMATA BANERJEE’s Trinamool Congress has now almost complete political control of rural West Bengal. In an overwhelming victory in the recently concluded five-phased panchayat elections in the State, the ruling party wrested control of 13 of 17 zilla parishads and won 214 out of 329 panchayat samities and 1,783 of 3,215 gram panchayats. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress, which form the oppostion, could win only one zilla parishad each. While the Left won 66 panchayat samities and 708 gram panchayats, the Congress managed just 20 panchayat samities and 233 gram panchayats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has never been a factor in West Bengal politics, once again failed to make any impression on the voter. Two zilla parishads, 22 panchayat samities and 399 gram panchayats had hung verdicts.

This was the first major elections that the Trinamool fought all alone since it came to power ending the 34-year Left Front rule in the State. The results show that in spite of severe criticism from all quarters on various issues and increasing disenchantment among urban voters, the party has not lost its grass-roots base. On the other hand, it was a grim picture for the opposition parties—the Left and the ally-turned-foe, the Congress —which apparently could not retrieve any lost ground. The Left and the Congress won only one zilla parishad each, Jalpaiguri and Murshidabad respectively.

Mamata Banerjee likened her victory to an “agnipariksha” (ordeal by fire). “The results have proved once again that the mandate of Ma Maati Manush [Mother, Earth, People—the Trinamool slogan] has clearly been on our side and helped us pass this agnipariksha of people’s confidence and trust,” she said.

However, the Trinamool’s success was accompanied by allegations from all political quarters of widespread rigging, intimidation and misuse of administrative machinery by the ruling party. The fact that 6,274 seats were won uncontested by the Trinamool did little to quell the opposition’s outcry of foul play. Biman Bose, Polit Bureau member and State secretary of the CPI(M) and chairman of the Left Front, said, “The entire Left Front is united in its opinion that the extent of malpractices that took place during the counting of votes is unprecedented.” Pradesh Congress president and Lok Sabha member Pradip Bhattacharya said, “Violence becomes very difficult to control when the government itself indulges in it. Some sort of action needs to be prescribed by the Governor of the State.”

This was the first panchayat election in which Central forces were deployed, as per the orders of the Supreme Court. But that had little impact on the violence. In the five phases of the elections (held on July 11, 15, 19, 22 and 25) over 20 people were killed as a direct or indirect result of the violence.

Panchayat elections in West Bengal have always had their share of bloodshed, but never perhaps has it been so brazen. A case in point is the inflammatory speech made on July 17 by Anubrata Mondal, the Trinamool district chief of Birbhum, in which he exhorted people to burn down the houses of those candidates who opposed the Trinamool as independents in the rural areas and hurl bombs at the police if they intervened. Mobs burnt down the houses of several independent candidates and attacked their family members. Mamata, instead of condemning the act, stood by Anubrata. However, rigging alone could not have ensured such a massive victory. There is no denying that the biggest factor behind the Trinamool’s success was a weak opposition which, in the last two years, had failed to capitalise on the blunders of the ruling party and the murmurs of disgruntlement in a section of the voters.

Left’s gains and losses

If one compares the Left’s present score with that in the previous local body elections, its performance would appear disastrous. In 2008, the Left won 13 zilla parishads, 190 panchayat samities and around 50 per cent of the gram panchayats. However, the political situation in the State has changed drastically since 2008, which was the beginning of a series of developments that ultimately brought about a change of government. If a comparison is made with the performance in the 2011 Assembly elections and the byelections, the situation looks less alarming for the Left; it rather remains unchanged. But this in itself is enough cause for concern for the CPI(M).

What is particularly worrying for the CPI(M) is the manner in which it lost in its traditional strongholds, including Bardhaman, Pashchim Medinipur, Hooghly and Bankura. In Bardhaman, unquestionably the strongest of the CPI(M)’s fortresses, the Left could win only 12 of 75 zilla parishad seats, one of 31 panchayat samities, and 41 of 277 gram panchayats. Even in the allegedly rigged elections of 1972, Bardhaman had remained loyal to the Left.

In Pashchim Medinipur, the situation was worse. Here the Left could win only one out of the 67 zilla parishad seats, no panchayat samiti, and just 22 out of 290 gram panchayats. Significantly, in the Jangalmahal (the contiguous forest area spread over parts of Pashchim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia), which was earlier a Maoist-dominated area, the Trinamool won 275 out of 290 gram panchayat seats. In Coochbehar in north Bengal, once a stronghold of the Forward Bloc, the Left won just six out of 33 zilla parishad seats, three out of 12 panchayat samities and 29 out of 128 gram panchayats.

The CPI(M)’s setbacks in these regions prompted Mamata to triumphantly claim, “We have wiped out the Left from their strongholds.” However, the Left’s victories came in unlikely pockets in North and South 24 Paraganas and Nadia, and in the Congress strongholds of Malda and Uttar Dinajpur and Murshidabad. However, given the Left’s overall performance, sceptics feel it remains to be seen whether it is indeed the beginning of a revival or simply a result of factionalism within the Trinamool.

It is not just intra-party feuding that cost the Trinamool some seats where victory was a certainty, particularly in the Diamond Harbour region and certain places close to Kolkata. Mamata and her party’s autocratic attitude and intolerance also worked against them. People had not forgotten what happened to Shiladitya Chowdhury, an indigent farmer who was labelled a “Maoist” by the Chief Minister and subsequently arrested for daring to voice his grievance to her at a public rally. More recently, it was the turn of a few hapless housewives of Kamduni village to be called “Maoists” for expressing their fears arising from an escalation of crimes against women in the region.

However, even if a section of the voters are losing their confidence in the Trinamool, by and large they do not appear to have changed their attitude towards the CPI(M). “The people who have removed us have not yet forgiven us for our old mistakes. It is too early. It will take time before we can win back their confidence,” a source in the CPI(M) told Frontline. Also, certain developments that were supposed to go against the Trinamool did not have the expected impact, particularly the multi-crore deposit collection scam by the Saradha Group which ruined the lives of lakhs of people, many of them poor villagers. The ruling party’s apparent closeness to the tainted company and its chairman, Sudipto Sen, was expected to have an adverse impact on the party.

For the Congress, the results were particularly disheartening. Apart from Murshidabad, where it won 42 of 70 zilla parishad seats, nine of 26 panchayat samities, and 107 of 254 gram panchayats, it seems to have lost its grip on its strongholds of north Bengal, including Malda and Uttar Dinajpur. In Malda it won 16 of 38 zilla parishad seats, five of 15 panchayat samities and 39 of 146 gram panchayats. It fared even worse in Uttar Dinajpur, where it won eight of 26 zilla parishad seats, two of nine panchayat samities and 23 of 98 gram panchayats.

“The results have been most disappointing and there is no substitute for organisational expansion and innovation. However, there is no denying that a combination of money, muscle power and misuse of police and administration has ensured the relative success of the Trinamool,” Pradesh Congress general secretary Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline.

Interestingly, the Left managed an impressive tally in all the Congress strongholds. In Murshidabad, it secured 26 zilla parishad seats, 12 panchayat samities (three more than Congress) and 77 gram panchayats; in Malda, it tied with the Congress, winning 16 zilla parishad seats, six panchayat samities (one more than the Congress) and 37 gram panchayats; in Uttar Dinajpur, it almost achieved majority, winning 13 zilla parishad seats, five panchayat samities, and 36 gram panchayats. But what is particularly disturbing for the Congress is the inroads, however small, that the Trinamool made. “Even a tiny space conceded to the Trinamool in our area means trouble for us. Theirs is the game of area domination,” a source in the Congress said.

Sign of things to come?

According to political observers, the results of the rural elections give an idea of the things to come in the Lok Sabha elections. A preliminary calculation shows the Trinamool will gain considerably in the coming Lok Sabha elections against its performance in 2009. At present it has 19 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats from the State. According to analysts, this figure may see a considerable increase. However, the opposition parties maintain that the scope for intimidation and violence in the general elections will be much less and that may produce a different result.

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