The one word being used to describe the violence that gripped West Bengal during this week’s Panchayat elections is “unprecedented”. But while there is general consensus – give or take a few discordant voices from the defense administration – that the state has never witnessed violence to this magnitude in any previous rural election, no one has, or legitimately can, claim that violence itself is new to elections here.
Indeed one of the most outrageous debates going on between the Opposition political parties and the ruling Trinamool post the polls is during whose reign the state witnessed more poll-related deaths. To the BJP, the Congress and the CPI(M)’s allegation that Trinamool wins hands down in this regard, the Trinamool retort has been an enumeration of the numbers of people killed during the Left rule. Why even one person should die because of violence during an election in a democratic country is a question that does not seem to have occurred to these political parties. Perhaps they have grown inured to such self-reflection given the bitter truth that West Bengal elections have, indeed, never been free of violence.
And of all the elections, it is the rural polls that have always been most hit. There are several reasons for this. The first is that these elections are about the control of money. “Most of us try and get a chance at becoming a part of the Panchayat at least once,” a villager in Nadia’s Meghna Chor village said. He openly admits that this is because, “Once one becomes a Panchayat member one’s life is made. They will keep receiving government funds for the rest of their lives.” This coupled with the fact that Panchayat members have access to the funds that governments dole out for public distribution schemes, which, it is an open secret, manipulated and lands up in the hands of the corrupt, makes it a lucrative profession. But not just for individuals, taking control of Panchayats is deemed high priority for political parties too. Coupled with control over the money, controlling the local governments on the ground strengthens the party’s roots.
“During the 34-year Left Front rule in West Bengal the Panchayats have been mostly in the control of the Left parties too,” Bengal political expert Tarun Ganguly tells Outlook. The veteran who has covered Bengal elections for over four decades says that Panchayat elections have traditionally been given a great deal of importance.
Indeed horror stories of rigging, booth-capturing, booth-jamming and voter-intimidation had emanated from the remote districts during the Left rule too. A former police commissioner speaking to Outlook on condition of anonymity said, “What made the violence more rampant during rural polls is the fact that these elections take place in remote corners of the state, out of the monitoring eyes of the media.”
Indeed the crucial change that has taken place in election reporting in recent times is the media glare. News video cameras are now not just travelling to the most distant polluting booths but is live streaming what they are capturing on the ground.
The 2018 Panchayat Polls reported 23 deaths so far and the numbers are expected to go up with several critically injured people languishing in hospitals. Of the deaths that took place, there are reports that at least 13 of them belong to the Trinamool itself. It has been pointed out that much of the clashes that are taking place is not just between the Opposition BJP, Congress and CPI(M) but also between different factions of the TMC. In many cases TMC breakaways who are contesting the elections as Independents have been targeted.
Let’s take a quick look at what went before in West Bengal’s recent history of rural polls:
- Panchayat 2013: At least 12 people were killed in poll related violence during these elections. These elections were significant because it was the first rural polls since Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011. Though TMC was in the thick of the Sharada chit fund scam which had just broke, it managed to capture the ground power. Writing about these elections, Kumar Rana of Calcutta’s Pratichi Institute had pointed out, “The bloodbath continues in rural Bengal as Panchayat elections are being held. About a dozen lives have already been sacrifice and, in all likelihood, there is more to follow. Only the third of the five phased elections to the Panchayati Raj institutions in West Bengal is over and rural West Bengl is rife with political violence. Even in areas where polling is over, carnages, beating, eviction and partisan clashes continue.”
- Panchayat 2008: Eighteen people were reported killed in a single day of polling during these elections. These elections were significant because it was the first indication of the CPI(M)’s decline came as it did in the midst of the Nandigram and Singur agitations. Clashes not only took place between a rising TMC and CPIM cadres but also between Left partners.
- Panchayat 2003: It became notorious for the number of dead in poll-related violence. It has been claimed by some sources that as many as 76 people had lost their lives during the elections. 45 of these deaths took place in Murshidabad District. CPI(M), which was in power in the state, pointed out that they had suffered the most number of deaths with 31 of their cadres and comrades either shot dead, killed in bomb blasts, beaten or butchered to death. The Congress followed at 19 and Trinamool and the BJP each lost ten of their forces. The violence of that rural election has been attributed the rise of the Opposition political forces namely a Trinamool and BJP combine.