July 03, 2020
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West Bengal: Panchayat Polls

Beginning Of The End?

The panchayat results have rattled the Left. The malaise runs deeper than just the symptoms of Singur and Nandigram. Had the Congress & Trinamool fought together, the Left would have been trounced...

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Beginning Of The End?
Beginning Of The End?

When Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee declared, while joyously distributing rasgollas to her aides, that this is the beginning of the CPI(M)'s end, the detailed results of the just-concluded panchayat polls in the state were yet to reach the state headquarters and, thus, her remarks were dismissed casually as wishful thinking. Had the media and analysts had access to the booth-wise tally of votes and the number of gram panchayats that the CPI(M) lost, this claim of Mamata would not have met with the customary disdain that her assertions and statements usually encounter. 

For, of the 3178 gram panchayats (GPs)—the lowest level of the three-tier panchayat system—in Bengal, the CPI(M)-led Left Front could gain control of only 1562 panchayats. That is, the Left could win a majority of the seats in just 49.15% of the total gram panchayats (GPs) in Bengal, while the Congress and Trinamool won 1340 GPs (42.16 percent). Compare this to the last polls in 2003 when the Left gained control of 2303 GPs. 

More significantly, the gulf between the number of GPs controlled by the Left and the opposition parties (the Congress & Trinamool) was 1612 in 2003; this time, the gap has narrowed down to 225. For the record, while the Congress had 385 GPs under its belt the last time, it has 519 now and the figures for the Trinamool are 306 and 818 respectively. And if one were to take into account the 276 GPs where the Left and opposition have won an equal number of seats, the Left's edge of 225 GPs over the combined opposition could vanish. 

In fact, as the results show, if the Congress and the Trinamool fought the elections together, the Left would have bitten the dust in an overwhelming majority of the GPs. Booth-wise votes polled by candidates belonging to the Left, Trinamool and Congress reveal that in most seats where the Left candidate won, it was by a narrower margin than in the 2003 elections and that the Left candidate benefited from the split in opposition votes. 

In all, the 17 districts where elections were held, the Left tally of GPs decreased. Even in CPI(M) bastions like Burdwan, Birbhum, Bankura, Purulia, Hooghly and Howrah, the Left lost control of a huge number of GPs. Overall, the Left garnered 49.8 percent of the votes cast. Given that the Left voters are a committed lot and make it a point to exercise their franchise unlike Congress or Trinamool supporters, and given that the CPI(M) employed strong-arm tactics like intimidating voters and rigging the polls, the Left's actual vote share would be even less. 

Also, one needs to take into account the 600-odd GPs that the Left won uncontested—here, opposition candidates were threatened and either prevented from filing their nomination papers or forced to withdraw from the fray. At the grassroots level, thus, the CPI(M)-led Left Front has actually lost or, at best, emerged neck-and-neck with the combined opposition.

Reports coming in from rural Bengal indicate that in vast swathes, voters silently defied the CPI(M)'s diktats and braved the party's threats to vote for opposition candidates. This happened especially at places where the opposition put up a brave fight and inspired confidence in the voters that they wouldn't be driven out of their homes or punished by a vengeful, defeated CPI(M). 

Against the Left's slide, look at the impressive gains made by the Congress and the Trinamool: the Congress bagged 519 GPs this time as compared to 385 the last time (an improvement of nearly 35 percent), while the Trinamool score of GPs went up from 306 to 818 (an improvement of a whopping 167 percent!). The Left's loss stood at 32 percent. 

At the second tier Panchayat Samiti (PS) level, too, the CPI(M) slid from its 2003 tally in all the districts, save for South Dinajpur and Murshidabad where it maintained its last election scores. The Left won 183 PSs this time as compared to 285 in 2003 (a decline of 35%), while the Congress improved its score from 28 to 45 (gain of nearly 61%) while the Trinamool saw a dramatic turn in its political fortunes by increasing its tally from 9 to 79 (an improvement of more than 777%). In fact, the opposition parties won creditably in many districts where it drew a blank in 2003. 

These micro-level results definitely take the sheen away from the Left managing to retain control over Zila Parishads (ZPs), the highest tier in the panchayat system, in 13 of the 17 districts. And at this level, too, the Left's tally of ZP seats came down from 619 in 2003 to 516 (a decline of nearly 17 percent), while the Congress improved its performance by 46% and the Trinamool, once again, by a massive 707%! 

Here, too, in all the districts save for Murshidabad where its tally of seats went up from 27 to 32 (amidst charges of massive and blatant rigging that was even captured by lensmen of the print and electronic media) and Burdwan, where its tally (63 seats) remained the same, the Left score came down in all the districts. 

A close analysis of the results reveals that had the Congress and Trinamool fought the elections unitedly, the Left would have been easily trounced in most of the districts. Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, South Dinajpur, Hooghly, West Midnapore and Birbhum are, perhaps, the only districts where the Left would have won a majority of the ZP seats in the face of a straight contest with a combined opposition. The division in opposition votes is a major reason for the Left gaining control of 13 of the 17 Zila Parishads. 

No wonder, then, that the Left, especially the CPI(M), is worried. CPI(M) leaders have gone on record saying that if this voting pattern repeats itself in the Lok Sabha polls a year from now, the Left would lose at least ten seats to the opposition, bringing its tally down to 25, the lowest in 30 years. The grim faces at the CPI(M) state committee meeting (on May 25 and 26) provided an insight into the shock that the party has suffered from. 

The panchayat results have rattled the party apparatchik like no other events has in 30 years. This nervousness was apparent from the fact that party chief Prakash Karat flew down to Kolkata to participate in the CPI(M) state committee meeting, an event he would never ever have attended otherwise. It would be a bit simplistic to blame the CPI(M)'s losses and the opposition, primarily the Trinamool's, gains on the ham-handed and high-handed land acquisition at Singur and Nandigram. 

As party leaders said in a rare moment of facing the truth, the land acquisition issue provided an outlet to years of pent-up anger and frustration. But why this frustration and anger among the rural masses, the very people whose solid support the CPI(M) claims to be enjoying? CPI(M) leaders would do well to delve into the reasons behind the disconnect with the masses. To others, of course, the answers are apparent: the party machinery has become venal, high-handed and autocratic.

The CPI(M)'s vice-like grip on all aspects of a person's life, including his social life, in rural Bengal has bred ill-will and turned many into silent opponents of the party. At the grassroots level, party leaders and workers have become a highly corrupt lot. Their high-handedness and arrogance has alienated large sections of the people. Also, the fact that the party, and the state government it leads, has done precious little to develop rural Bengal and its economy has only recently dawned on the poor folks and this realization has, naturally, turned them against the Left. At many places, informal understandings between the opposition parties also caused upsets for the Left. The neglect of Muslims, as brought out in the Sachar Commission report, was driven home to the minorities very effectively by Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind. 

What, then, will be the immediate fallout of the panchayat elections? For one, the state government will go very slow on acquiring land for a slew of industrial, commercial and housing projects, especially in North and South 24 Parganas districts and East Midnapore. A number of projects that involve acquisition of farmlands would, most probably, be shelved. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee will face stronger opposition from the junior partners in the Left Front government, especially the RSP and Forward Bloc, in his unbridled pursuit of industrialisation and policies like entry of big chains in the retail sector. The opposition would also be bolder and challenge Bhattacharjee on many fronts, including industrialisation. The Chief Minister would, thus, lose his USP and would have to face the ignominy of seeing his pet industrialisation drive suffer even as other states surge ahead. 

However, all said and done, though the results point to a definite trend of the masses getting disillusioned with the Left (read: the CPI-M), a lot would depend on how the opposition, especially the Trinamool, conducts itself from now on. If Mamata behaves responsibly and shuns her impulsive and destructive ways that have alienated many of her supporters in the past, and if she works towards a tie-up (even an informal one at the grassroots level as had happened in some places this time) with the Congress, there would be some hope for drawing the curtains on this uninterrupted Left Front rule when the Assembly elections are held three years from now. That is, however, assuming that the CPI(M) doesn't mend its ways and doesn't beat the opposition and all those who voted against it this time into submission in the intervening period. 

Given Mamata's track record of irresponsible behaviour, senior Congress leaders' deep complicity with the CPI(M) (they've been scuttling opposition unity moves to help the CPI-M win elections) and the CPI(M)'s own reputation for effective 'damage control', chances are that Buddhadeb's smiling visage would be plastered all over the front pages of newspapers after the 2011 Assembly polls. The 2008 panchayat elections would have then been relegated as a minor aberration in the Left's eighth successive win in Bengal's Assembly elections.

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