West Bengal Municipal elections

Violence and victory

Print edition : May 29, 2015

Hooligans threaten journalists near a polling booth during voting at Katwa in Bardhaman district on April 25. Photo: PTI

Trinamool supporters celebrate after winning in the Municipal Election in Jalpaiguri on April 28. Photo: PTI

The Trinamool Congress’ triumph in the elections to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and 91 other civic bodies comes at the cost of its credibility and reputation.

FOR the ruling Trinamool Congress of West Bengal, the huge victory in the recent civic body elections has come at a heavy price—the loss of its credibility and reputation. In one of the most violent elections since the Trinamool assumed power in 2011, the party won 71 of the 92 municipalities that went to the polls across the State, including the much-coveted Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC). It won a record 114 of the total 144 wards of the KMC, while the Left Front could manage to win only 15 and the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got just five and seven wards, respectively. Three wards were won by independent candidates. Of the other 91 civic bodies, the Left won six and the Congress five, while the BJP drew a blank.

The polls to the civic bodies were the last major electoral battle before the 2016 Assembly elections. The Trinamool Congress stamped its complete dominance in the State, reducing the opposition parties to apparent insignificance. However, the sweetness of the victory was marred by widespread allegations of intimidation, booth capturing and ruthless rigging by the ruling party. The intensity of the violence and the extent of electoral malpractices on April 18 and 25—the two days of polling —stunned the people of West Bengal, who are no strangers to political violence. In the absence of Central forces to provide security to the voters, the goons of the Trinamool Congress ran amok, perpetrating terror among the voters and the opposition candidates with impunity.

“On the night before the elections, some men from the Trinamool came and confiscated all the voter ID cards of the people of my neighbourhood,” a resident of south Kolkata told Frontline. In another part of the city, Bulbul Bhattacharjee, an elderly voter, claimed that on the morning of the elections, she and her husband, along with several other people from her locality, were approached by Trinamool activists who warned them against casting their votes. “They said, at your old age it would be difficult to recover from broken bones; better stay at home,” she said. Many were prevented from casting their votes at the polling stations, and there were innumerable incidents of attack on voters. Most of the allegations against the ruling party came from areas where the opposition is relatively strong. Not even the police were safe, as Jagannath Mandal, a sub-inspector realised after being shot at by Trinamool activists when he tried to intervene in a street battle. The situation was worse in the districts, particularly in south Bengal. The violence did not spare the Trinamool either: one of its activists was gunned down outside a polling booth in Katwa in Bardhaman district.

Though complaints continued to flood the office of the State Election Commission from different parts of the State, the constitutional authority remained nothing more than a helpless spectator. Even as State Election Commissioner S.R. Upadhyay conceded that the elections were not “ideal” and the opposition parties called them a “farce”, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee congratulated the police saying: “There has not been a more peaceful vote in the past.”

Unrealistic statistics

The polling statistics betray the extent of the rigging and booth-jamming. Biswanath Chakraborty, veteran psephologist and professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, pointed out that in many wards the Trinamool secured more than 80 per cent of the votes, which is obviously an unrealistic figure given the four-cornered electoral contests. The results in many of the booths cannot but point to rampant malpractice. For example, in Booth 21 of ward 34, the Trinamool got 863 votes, while the Left and the BJP got only nine and seven, respectively. “Such examples abound in this election. We believed this kind of violence in a civic poll in a metropolitan city was a thing of the past. It raises questions about the culture of the city itself,” Chakraborty told Frontline. He pointed out that in several wards the number of votes cast exceeded the number of voters in the voters’ list. “This shows uncontrolled rigging by outsiders who had no idea of the constituency,” said Chakraborty.

Unnecessary violence

What has confounded the general public is why the Trinamool had to resort to such violence at all when a comfortable victory was practically assured for it. Even certain leaders of the party admitted that the extent of the violence was perhaps unnecessary. “In a few places our boys may have overdone it a bit in their enthusiasm to win, as some of the young leaders wanted to prove themselves by securing big margins of victory,” said a Trinamool leader. Even diehard Trinamool voters found it difficult to justify the party’s behaviour, as quite a few of them, too, were victims of hooliganism. The exasperation of the people was evident when two days after the results were declared, normal life in West Bengal came to a standstill on April 30, when an all-India transport strike called by trade unions turned into a de facto general strike in the State in protest against the attack on democracy in the elections. The dawn-to-dusk shutdown was supported by all opposition parties.

In spite of the one-sided result, the election did throw up certain new and interesting trends and developments in West Bengal’s politics. The most significant has been that the Left has managed to reverse the trend indicated by the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which the BJP showed signs of emerging as the second political force in the State after the Trinamool. Despite the alleged rigging and intimidation by the ruling party, for the first time since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections the Left has been able to stem the erosion of its vote share and party strength (see interview of Surjya Kanta Mishra). Capturing the prestigious Siliguri Municipal Corporation was a feather in the cap for the beleaguered Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), which was in power for 34 consecutive years in the State until 2011. Ashok Bhattacharya, former Cabinet Minister and a CPI(M) heavyweight in north Bengal, who spearheaded the campaign in Siliguri, told Frontline: “It is the arrogance and corruption of the Trinamool that alienated them from the people of Siliguri. Though they tried to use intimidation tactics against the voters, we remained constantly in touch with the masses and gave them the courage to come out and vote.” Though the Left can take heart from this victory, it is still a distant second in the political race.

Reality check for the BJP

For the BJP, on the other hand, it was a reality check. After its best ever performance in the State in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which its vote share shot up to 17 per cent from around 6 per cent, it could not, for reasons of its own creation, keep up the momentum. A directionless leadership and violent inner-party bickering that surfaced just before the filing of the nomination papers for the municipal elections exposed the inherent weaknesses of the State unit and the enormous distance it still needs to go before it can emerge as a viable alternative political force in West Bengal. Acknowledging that his party “must get its house in order”, senior BJP leader Tathagata Roy feels that his party should not be judged by the civic poll results. “This was fought on local issues. Moreover, the widespread rigging and the partisan nature of the police rendered the results largely invalid. In 2016, the story will be different as the election process will not be in the hands of Mamata Banerjee but the Central forces.” The BJP could take a little comfort from the fact that it managed to win a ward on Mamata’s own home turf, when it wrested ward no. 70 from the ruling party in Bhowanipore in south Kolkata.

Congress holds on

The Congress, which has been plagued by constant defection from both its rank and file and leadership, held on to its strongholds in north Bengal, winning two municipalities in Murshidabad, two in Uttar Dinajpur, and one in Purulia. However, it lost the English Bazaar Municipality in Malda to the Trinamool.

“We still have potential, but the party needs to project itself in a much stronger manner in the State. The leadership now needs to come up with proper strategies and resources,” veteran Pradesh Congress leader Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline.

Related Articles

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor