West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is always in immaculate white, but he's finding it hard to hide the stains lately, running his state from Writers Building. The bloody violence that marked the fortnight before the panchayat elections will haunt the Left Front government for a long time to come.
At a recent public meeting in Amdanga, North 24 Parganas, the CM promised: "Please cast your vote on May 11. Our panchayats are our pride, we will further empower them." But even with the wave of red flags, Buddhadeb was aware the bloody run-up to the polls had decisively marred his government's public image.
In fact, the aggressive build-up had little to do with empowerment. Instead, it was a desperate attempt to ensure a Left Front (LF) victory at any cost, to crush the Opposition with an open display of money and muscle power. Any reference to local development or democracy was just half-hearted rhetoric; neither the politicians nor the voters took it seriously. It was goonda raj all the way.
So much so that till May 7, 22 people had been officially declared victims. The attack at Rajarhat on Tapan Sikdar, a bjp minister of state at the Centre, by CPI(M) supporters, proved how little control the CM or party heavyweights like Biman Bose and Anil Biswas wield. In fact, Buddhadeb had to apologise, expressing his "personal regret" at the incident.
The repeated pleas for restraint had little effect on the ground. Even Amar Chaudhury, a 70-year-old rsp minister in the West Bengal government, was not spared—he was assaulted by CPI(M) supporters at Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas. The minister even confessed to the police that he had to run for his life as the mob went berserk. And he was the second rsp minister to be attacked by CPI(M) men.
There was a marked contrast too in the pattern of violence in different parts of West Bengal. Residents of Bally on the Howrah-Hooghly border say in the last polls it was the Congressmen intimidating Left voters. This time Leftist musclemen came visiting, threatening non-Left supporters with dire consequences. Even the candidates' families were not spared.
The goons would threaten, in typical underworld style: "Are you sure you are doing the right thing? Your wife teaches in a college 12 miles from here, doesn't she? What if something happened to her?" Recalls a candidate's relative: "The threats were always vague. So there was no point in approaching the police, who in any case play deaf. Besides, who wants trouble especially when the administration is so obviously partisan?"
The terror tactics worked, reflected in the fact that the Opposition failed to field candidates in 6,283 seats. In the 1998 panchayat polls, this figure was much lower—1,700. This time elections are for 49,244 gram panchayats, 8,500 panchayat samitis and 713 zilla parishads.
In Malda, Murshidabad and Chopra in North Bengal, where the Congress has a considerable support base, the violence was more alarming. There were planned attacks, usually resulting in equally violent retaliation as in Chopra, where cadre from both sides were killed in clashes. Congress leaders Pranab Mukherjee and Priyaranjan Das Munshi even called for polls to be postponed here until normalcy was restored. Mukherjee went to the extent of saying the CPI(M) was "toeing the Narendra Modi line" in trying to wipe out the Opposition. Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee alleged that a partisan police simply refused to register firs even as she was calling for the imposition of Article 356 in the state.
As one awaits the finale, there is no doubt the dark message from the rural interiors of West Bengal has smeared the administration and the people of the state in its wake. The campaign goons are bound to demand their pound of flesh especially if their candidates win, a dark irony that even the ruling party's leaders dread.Forget panchayati raj and grassroots governance, Budhadeb's own party "vanguard" seems hellbent on destroying his meticulously cultivated bhadralok image. Can the CM bring to book the anti-socials in his own ranks?
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