Local body elections

Violence before vote

Print edition : May 11, 2018

Veteran CPI(M) leader Basudeb Acharya, who was hospitalised after being attacked in Purulia district. Photo: GANASHAKTI

Scenes of violence ahead of the local body elections in the State, where several opposition members were prevented from filing their nominations. Photo: GANASHAKTI

Scenes of violence ahead of the local body elections in the State, where several opposition members were prevented from filing their nominations. Photo: GANASHAKTI

A CPI(M) protest against the violence allegedly unleashed by Trinamool Congress activists to prevent opposition candidates from filing their nominations for the upcoming local body elections, during a general strike in Siliguri on April 13. Photo: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

The Trinamool Congress prevents opposition candidates from filing nominations in a record number of local body seats in West Bengal, drawing widespread condemnation.

CELEBRATIONS over the three-tier panchayat elections in West Bengal began nearly a month before the first vote was cast. Leaders and activists of the ruling Trinamool Congress party smeared each other with green colour (the party colour), brought out victory rallies and organised cultural events in different parts of the State to celebrate their triumph in the local body elections.

The celebration was widely condemned as Trinamool workers had allegedly prevented opposition parties from filing their nominations in nearly 25 per cent of the seats. It was perceived as a blatant attempt by the ruling party to ensure the absence of the opposition as much as possible in the elections and sparked severe criticism from even some of the staunchest supporters of the Trinamool.

A hearing in the matter is pending in the Calcutta High Court. Uncertainty looms over the election dates. Initially, the State Election Commission had announced May 1, 3 and 5 as the polling dates.

The scale of violence and intimidation at the stage of filing of nomination papers was unprecedented in the history of the State’s politics. The violence, which began on April 2, the first day of filing of nominations, continued unabated until April 9, the last day, and at least six people reportedly lost their lives. It appeared to be a concerted and pre-planned effort by the ruling party to stop the opposition candidates from filing their nominations and win as many seats as possible without contest.

Miscreants allegedly owing allegiance to the Trinamool blockaded the entrances to the block development offices, subdivisional offices and in some cases even the District Magistrate’s office, where nominations for gram panchayat, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad seats are filed, and attacked opposition candidates who tried to enter to file their nominations. Even women and the elderly were not spared.

Out of the 48,650 seats at the gram panchayat level, 13,200 (27.3 per cent) went to the Trinamool uncontested; of the 9,217 panchayat samiti seats, the Trinamool won 2,300 (24.95 per cent) unopposed; and of the 825 zilla parishad seats, it won 130 without a contest. The ruling party seized control of the zilla parishad in two districts: it won all 42 seats uncontested in Birbhum and 26 of the 46 seats uncontested in Bankura. The other districts where the Trinamool won a large number of seats after allegedly preventing opposition candidates from filing their nominations are Hooghly, South and North 24 Paraganas, Purbo Medinipur, West Bardhaman and Murshidabad.

In certain places, for the sake of security, opposition candidates from the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress went en masse to file their nominations, but even that did not deter the miscreants. On April 5, Ram Chandra Dome, a six-time Lok Sabha member from Bolpur (Birbhum district), was brutally attacked when he accompanied the Left and Congress candidates who were proceeding to file their nominations in Nalhati 1 Block. Goons, allegedly from the Trinamool, set upon the candidates. Dome was injured in the head in the violence that ensued.

“Armed Trinamool goons barricaded all the block headquarters. The code phrase was ‘the mosquito net has been spread’, meaning they would be keeping the mosquitoes, that is, the opposition candidates, out. This is a new plan devised by the ruling party to finish with the panchayat elections at the nomination stage itself. The administration seemed to be in tandem with these organised goons,” Dome told Frontline. According to him, the miscreants were well-entrenched outside government offices, having set up camps and even kitchens, evidently for a prolonged campaign.

The next day, Basudeb Acharya (75), a veteran CPI(M) leader and nine-time Lok Sabha member from Bankura constituency, was attacked while accompanying Left candidates who went to file their nominations in Purulia district. He had to be hospitalised.

Similar attacks took place in different parts of the State, with all opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress and the Left, accusing the Trinamool of orchestrating the violence. It was not just opposition party workers who were targeted; even Trinamool activists lost their lives as inner-party clashes over the selection of candidates broke out in different parts of the State.

At least two Trinamool workers fell victim to such feuds. Sofiar Rehman from Sashan in North 24 Paraganas was stabbed to death by Rajab Ali, allegedly a party rival, while leading a victory rally on April 11, after winning all the 17 gram panchayats in the region uncontested. Ali was beaten to death on the spot.

This year, the number of seats that were won without contest has been the highest since the beginning of the panchayat elections in 1978. The highest number of seats won uncontested in civic elections was 11 per cent in 2003, when the CPI(M)-led Left Front was in power. The second highest was 10.66 per cent in 2013, under the Trinamool.

In 2018, even before the withdrawal of nominations, it was close to 25 per cent. Political observers believe that this percentage is likely to increase after withdrawal of nominations.

“We saw block offices and subdivisional offices being blocked by armed activists on the day of nomination. This is unprecedented not just in panchayat elections but also in the history of Indian elections,” the well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty said. According to him, the violence and the need for the ruling party to dominate the panchayats was directly linked with controlling the economic activities in the region.

“Lack of industries and growing joblessness is making more and more people dependent on various government projects, particularly at the panchayat and municipal levels. Earlier there was just political rivalry, now there is a new impetus—the economic factor,” he added.

He pointed out that the places that witnessed the maximum violence and where the highest number of uncontested wins took place—Birbhum, Bankura, Arambagh (Hooghly), Basirhat subdivision (North 24 Paraganas), Canning and Diamond Harbour subdivisions (South 24 Paraganas)—had the highest unemployment rates in the State.

While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her government remained in a state of denial, some of Trinamool’s most eminent and respected supporters, including the thespian Bibhas Chakraborty, singers Pallab Kirtaniya and Pratul Mukhopadhyay, and former Advocate General of West Bengal Bimal Chatterjee, came out in condemnation of the prevailing situation.

Chatterjee said: “From what I gathered from the print and electronic media, I became very afraid. If the opposition is not given any space to exist, then democracy itself is dismembered. That is why I said, there has been a disfigurement of democracy, and the democracy we live in is a crippled one.” He pointed out that there was violence during the previous governments, too, but it mainly took place on the day of voting.

“Now they do not seem to want to take elections to the voting stage. They wish to win uncontested. If we tolerate this attitude it will get worse,” Chatterjee said.

Mamata Banerjee dismissed the allegations, saying: “Out of the 58,000-odd booths where the nomination process was going on, there have been only seven instances of problems.”

Election Commission’s flip-flop

On the night of April 9, as the Trinamool celebrated its uncontested victory in different parts of the State, the State Election Commission extended the date of filing nominations by a day. Earlier, on the same day, the Supreme Court rejected the BJP’s petition to intervene in the panchayat elections but directed the State Election Commission to look into the grievances of those candidates who were allegedly prevented from filing their nominations.

If the hopes of the opposition were raised by the notification, it was dashed the very next morning when State Election Commissioner A.K. Singh revoked his previous night’s order.

The volte-face faced widespread outrage from political quarters, with opposition parties alleging that the State Election Commissioner was forced to reverse his decision under pressure from the government and the ruling party.

The State Election Commission’s behaviour served to reinforce the allegations of the State government’s high-handedness. The same day the BJP moved the Calcutta High Court, which stayed the State Election Commission’s order, but by that time the extended deadline had passed and no more nominations had been filed. On April 12 the High Court stalled the election process.

However, the violence continued, with alleged Trinamool goons embarking upon a programme of systematic intimidation to force opposition candidates into withdrawing their nominations. In a span of three days (April 13-15), hundreds of Left, BJP and Congress workers, who had managed to file their nominations withdrew from the contest, claiming that they had been forced to do so by Trinamool miscreants. Instances abound of alleged Trinamool activists going to the houses of opposition candidates and roughing them up and threatening them and their families.

As of April 17, the election process continued to remain stalled owing to hearings pending in the Calcutta High Court.

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