Panchayat elections in West Bengal have been violence-prone since it was first introduced in 1978. However, the 2018 contest seems exceptional if the nature of violence is considered. With a fortnight left for polling, the Opposition has accused the ruling Trinamool Congress of using cadre muscle and state power to physically dominate the poll arena and bully rival candidates to back off from contesting. The CPM, which once had the monopoly of violence in the state, has had to bear the brunt of the violence: Senior leaders like Basudeb Acharia and Ramachandra Dom were hospitalised after being beaten up, allegedly by TMC supporters. The show of aggression and intimidation by the TMC, certainly, has had the desired impact on the contest: The ruling party has won over 34 per cent of seats in the local bodies unopposed, while no opposition party has been lucky enough to win even a single seat without a contest. Reports indicate that only twice in the past 40 years have more than 10 per cent of local body seats elected a winner unopposed.
This is not the first time the dominant party has been accused of rigging the local body polls in West Bengal through physical intimidation. Beginning with the Congress in the 1970s, ruling parties have sought total domination of the political space in the state to the extent that the Opposition is forced to leave the field. Under the CPM, coercion became the leitmotif of electoral politics, with the party using its cadre machinery to capture grass roots institutions. This process was aided by the party becoming the arbiter of state power and dispenser of patronage. Any challenge to the party’s dominance was met with physical intimidation. The use of coercion and violence to dominate the political space has over the decades been institutionalised and almost become an accepted political practice. The TMC built its profile as an organisation willing to stand up to the CPM’s authoritarian ways and promised to offer a more democratic alternative to the partisan governance of the Marxists. But in office, the party seems to be replicating the CPM’s discredited model of political domination. The transformation Mamata Banerjee promised to voters has so far manifested only in TMC workers taking over the streets from CPM cadres.
West Bengal was a pioneer in adopting the panchayat system, years before Parliament passed the 73rd Constitution amendment. The total domination by ruling parties, however, has destroyed the institution’s potential to deepen democracy at the grass roots and enable equitable distribution of state resources.