West Bengal votes Thursday in the first phase of panchayat polls after a bitter showdown that saw Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee severely attacking the state election commission over the schedule. A court order has ensured the poll panel has had its way.
The run-up has also seen the opposition alleging assaults by the ruling Trinamool Congress; such allegations once used to be made against the Left Front. The polls have a brighter side: West Midnapore,Purulia and Bankura,are voting after a long tryst with Naxal violence and poll boycotts.
Mamatas efforts to delay the polls,apparently triggered by initial assessments that her party wouldnt do well at this stage,might well have been unnecessary. Surveys by state agencies,non-political organisations and even political parties have predicted a sweep by the Trinamool.
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The stakes remain high. Having failed to delay the polls beyond next years Lok Sabha elections,the Trinamool is striving to put in place a network that would ensure 30 to 35 of 42 LS seats. Aiming to destroy whatever remains of the CPM and Congress bases,Mamata has been crisscrossing the state with statements such as,Let the polls get over,whatever remains of the Left in Bengal will have to take refuge in Venezuela or North Korea,or find a place in the lap of the Congress.
Winds of change
The last panchayat polls were held when the Left Front was still strong,as the vote shares show (see charts). The assembly elections swung these shares away from the Left,but the Trinamool and the Congress were together then. Surveys now have predicted a 50 per cent share for the Trinamool alone.
The Left holds 13 of 17 zilla parishads,the Trinamool East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas,and the Congress Malda and Uttar Dinajpur. This time,surveys give two parishads each to the Left Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar and the Congress,which is expected to win Murshidabad,retain Uttar Dinajpur and struggle in Malda where the Trinamool has engineered defections.
The predicted sweep involves a swing from the Left to the Trinamool in all of South Bengal. It is largely in these districts that the Trinamool has won unopposed over 6,500 gram panchayat seats,or nearly 11 per cent of the statewide total. In 2008,it was the Left that won 7,000 seats unopposed.
A party apparently so well placed had initially been misled,say bureaucrats,police officials and even senior Trinamool leaders,by urban disenchantment over low industrial investment,few job openings,rising campus violence,deteriorating law and order and growing intolerance of ruling leaders,particularly the chief minister. None of it,party leaders now say,is reflected in the rural regions.
One concern remains,however: Muslims are upset with the government over failed promises. Trinamool leaders are playing on the fact that the polls coincide with Ramzan and stressing their concern for the community.
Indeed,it might have been a wrong initial assessment that may explain why the party wanted the polls deferred. It was certainly a wrong strategy to malign a constitutional authority such as the state election commission, says Prabahat Datta,who holds the centenary chair of public administration in Calcutta Universitys political science department. The wind is,however,blowing in favour of the ruling party and the opposition is not very visible in the contest.
Party vs party
The CPM and the Congress have complained against terror. The panchayat polls this time have been marked by an unprecedented torrent of atrocity by the ruling Trinamool Congress, says Pradip Bhattacharya of the Congress. In the rural belts the entire machinery of the CPM and that of Maoists has shifted to the Trinamool,with official patronage. These armed gangs have unleashed terror,which forced the Congress to seek judicial redress.
He admits the Congress has suffered an erosion in its support base and blamed the 2011 alliance with the Trinamool,which saw the former contesting only 65 of 294 assembly seats. This time,we have been able to field as many candidates as we wanted to make sure that before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls the party has a basic organisational network in each block.
The CPM held a state committee meeting last week on the panchayat polls. General secretary Prakash Karat,who attended it,said the entire country has come to know how the Trinamool government in Bengal has fought with the state election commissioner in total violation of democratic principles.
State leaders who surveyed the rural belt concluded that despite an atmosphere of terror,voters anger against the government is palpable in many pockets. We hope it will reflect in the ballot box,though a large number of our candidates were either prevented from filing nominatons,or forced to withdraw their nominations, said Biman Basu of the CPM.
Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee was dismissive. After the polls,one will not find the CPM any more, he said. He also predicted a blow to the Congress in Malda.
One of the highlights of these polls is the reservation of 50 per cent of the seats for women, Mukherjee added. The polls will bring in a large number of women administrators at the grassroots.