AND now, the panchayat polls. Once again, it is an election that nobody really wants. Particularly after the high-flown oratory of the Lok Sabha polls. But, as per the law, the 1998 West Bengal pan-chayat polls must be held by May 31 which marks the end of the five-year tenure for the three-tier panchayat structure—village panchayats, panchayat samitis and district councils.
Following the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, West Bengal has been left with three major political groupings instead of the traditional two—the ruling Left Front, the BJP-Trinamul combine and the Congress. But, for all their political differences, all three groups agree that the panchayat polls would be an unwelcome chore, coming on the heels of the Lok Sabha elections. "Everything has to change, suddenly voters of the rural and semi-urban areas—there will be elections in some municipal areas as well—will be asked to vote on local, not national, issues at a time when even the graffiti of the Lok Sabha polls has not yet faded! What kind of verdict can one expect from a confused electorate?" asks Jayanta Sanyal, first-time voter from South Calcutta.
Initial rumblings came from within the CPI(M). Even veteran central committee leaders had suggested that the panchayat polls be postponed. Their request was turned down by Suryakanta Mishra, minister for panchayats, who was supported by chief minister Jyoti Basu. Within days, the polls were announced for May 28.
According to Forward Bloc sources, the Left Front was, in a way, hoisted on its own petard. "The Front, especially the CPI(M), was expecting to sweep the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, because the anti-Left vote was divided between Trinamul-BJP and the Congress. Basu spoke of going to Delhi if the need arose. It was assumed that if we did better than in 1996 when we won 33 seats, we could comfortably wrap up the panchayat polls. But the Lok Sabha polls brought us down to earth with a bump, it showed how wrong and complacent we were, even if we did not lose any seats," says a Bloc leader. "The Front needs time to analyse where it went wrong, where its workers failed, what turned the people off. In fact, if the panchayat polls were scheduled for September, it would have been better in that we could have regrouped and recovered."
The shadow of the Front's poor showing in the Lok Sabha polls is likely to fall over the panchayat poll campaign. During the Lok Sabha campaign, a CPI leader had sent a note to Front chairman Sailen Dasgupta, warning him of the pro-Trinamul groundswell of support among the people. If Dasgupta learnt anything, it was not reflected in the vitriolic anti-Mamata campaign conducted by Basu and heir-apparent Buddhadeva Bhattacharya, which evidently offended sober sensibilities.
With the overall Left tally in the Lok Sabha down to 48 from 53 in two years, the ruling front is leaving nothing to chance. Basu even admitted to his ministers, at a meeting last week, that he had heard a dirge of complaints about the state's bad roads, its non-functioning hospitals and its sporadic power supply, wherever he had gone. He urged his team to bestir itself. "In our country, things move only when elections are held. Now there will be long-awaited road repairs and welfare work in the villages," says a Congress spokesman.
LEFT spokesmen dismiss such criticism. Says Anil Biswas, member, central committee: "We could have postponed the polls through legal means, but we decided to go ahead with it". A state committee member pointed out that the party still trod on sure ground in the rural areas. "Our hold on the villages has remained virtually unchanged, and the membership of our Kisan Sabha now exceeds one crore, the result of years of hard work. Is there any party, including the Trinamul, which can think of matching our strength in the rural areas? Over 12,00,000 peasants now own their land and 70 per cent of all land distributed through reforms in India is in West Bengal," he said. Litigation sponsored by Mamata Banerjee to probe misuse of rural development funds died a natural death in the absence of any damning evidence of corruption.
The downside of his claim is that land reforms have been stagnant for over 10 years now, and even the Kisan Sabha admits that in some areas people have sold their land. There has been a drop in rural votes for the CPI(M) in the 1998 Lok Sabha polls—of around 2.7 per cent as against over 6 per cent in the urban areas.
And as for rural reforms, an audit report showed that even after 20 years of Left rule, there were pockets where the rural poor got work through welfare schemes only seven days a year. Says Manas Bhunia, Congress spokesman: "For the 3,351 village panchayat clusters, there have been no auditing of accounts since 1985, and the same goes for the 341 panchayat samitis and the 16 district councils. For the record, each village panchayat gets around Rs 10 to 15 lakh annually, the panchayat samitis around Rs 8 to 9 crore and the district council Rs 100 to 150 crore—not exactly peanuts by Indian standards. The monies are siphoned off into illegal personal ledger accounts or local fund accounts, violating all rules."
Even as big brother CPI(M) wrestles with its own problems of stagnation and long-term survival, its allies have a more important agenda: protecting their smaller identities and interests. Each party is keen to establish its political assertion visa-vis the big brother. And all leaders are agreed that the timing of the panchayat polls is unfortunate but, under the existing laws, unavoidable.
Ashok Ghosh, chairman of the Forward Bloc, puts it bluntly: "There was very little coordination in the last panchayat polls, and seats were not shared properly." Says Sunil Sengupta, senior RSP leader: "This time there is simply no room for complacency, new forces are emerging and even our past experience may not help us much." An obvious reference to the Lok Sabha poll results. The situation is the same all around. Says CPI state secretary Manju Majumdar: "The functioning of the Left Front should be thoroughly reviewed and it must function right down to the grassroots. The last time around, we had dissident Left candidates contesting official Front candidates in many seats".
Only a few weeks back, Basu had glossed over the problems in the rural areas, reminding people attending his public meetings that "the Lok Sabha polls are fought on national issues, so do not talk of bad roads or drinking water now". This time around—and in a situation where rural areas too have been affected by the overall lack of growth and economic decline—he will have to talk of drinking water and joblessness rather than Cuba and Castro.
Bhunia alleges that the Left Front had pressed the United Front government into altering the text of a new Central directive which had sought to involve the chief secretary, the district magistrates and the SDOs into panchayat development work down to grassroot levels and had ensured that only elected representatives were involved. "We will now press the Centre to revive the original directive," he says.
Between 1992 and 1998, the Left Front, which has been dominating the panchayat polls in the state, has been having to contend with the changing realities. A new reality underscored by the 1998 Lok Sabha polls. To begin with, the BJP\Trinamul combine has secured a majority in 100 out of the 294 assembly segments in West Bengal, claiming a 32 per cent share of total votes polled. The Congress share is down to 16 per cent, and that of the Left Front, to 47 per cent as against 49 per cent in the 1996 panchayat polls. Significantly, the combined BJP-Trinamul-Congress vote, at 48 per cent, now exceeds that of the CPI(M)and its allies. It's a trend that should send red lights flashing in the Left camp.