“The journey to Delhi originates in the rural heartland of Bengal.” Perhaps, these words by senior TMC leader Derek O’Brien best explains the political churning that has been going on in West Bengal in the run-up to the panchayat elections, which will be held tomorrow after the Calcutta High Court last month asked the State Election Commission to reschedule the poll dates. With 40 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal located in villages and semi-urban areas, grip over the rural bodies is a must for parties to have an upper hand before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The rescheduling of election dates for 48,650 Gram Panchayat seats, 9217 Panchayat Samiti seats and 825 Zilla Parishad seats has come as a major setback to the Mamata Banerjee government after the Left, BJP and Congress cried foul over the SEC’s flip-flop over the nomination deadline extension, and alleged that the ruling party had unleashed violence across the state and stopped opposition candidates from filing nominations, mainly in Birbhum and Malda. On Friday, Trinamool Congress leader Arabul Islam was arrested and sent to 10-day police custody in connection with the killing of Hafizul Mollah, a supporter of an Independent candidate, in Bhangar, in 24 Parganas South district.
However, TMC leader and Malda district president MM Hossain rubbished the allegations and said the opposition was trying to give political colour to incidents that had no political connection. “A person was murdered in Malda’s Kaliachak due to personal enmity, while another person was shot in Sujanpur after he did not give extortion money while he was returning from a TMC meeting,” Hossain said.
In the midst of this, Banerjee dropped a bomb on Friday, accusing some political parties of hiring killers to murder her. “They (contract killers) have done a recce in and around my house. But I am not scared. Those unable to fight me politically are doing this. I have made a will stating who will run my party after my death,” Mamata told Bengali news channel Zee 24 Ghanta.
EC extends deadline for filing nominations
On April 9, the state election commission extended the deadline for filing nominations to April 10. But the next day, it rolled back its order. After the Calcutta HC order, nomination process was extended till April 23. However, there seemed to be no end to the violence as opposition candidates claimed that “armed hooligans” prevented them from reaching the Block Development Office, with Birbhum and Murshidabad being the most volatile. The opposition parties again approached the HC, which then directed the SEC to accept nominations filed through e-mail, but only to be overruled by the Supreme Court.
The apex court even took cognizance of the submission that about 34 per cent of TMC candidates had won the panchayat polls unopposed and restrained the SEC from notifying the results in respect to the constituencies where there has been no contest without its leave . According to SEC data, TMC has faced no contest in 20,076 of the 58,692 seats. In the last 40 years, there have been only two occasions when the number of uncontested seats crossed 10 per cent — 2003 (11 per cent) and 2013 (10.66 per cent).
TMC faces no contest in record number of seats
CPM MLA Sujan Chakraborty said TMC did not win the rural bodies but “captured” them. “They have simply captured the rural bodies by preventing the Opposition from filing their nominations. There is no credit in winning seats without a contest,” he said.
According to Hossain, the numbers were not all surprising since it has been the norm that if a party does not have grassroots organisational strength to match up to the ruling party, it gives them a walkover. “BJP, Congress and CPI(M) and are spreading canards. But the people know the reality,” he said.
However, BJP state secretary Sayantan Basu said the panchayat elections have only become a farce and predicted that goons of the ruling party would have a field day tomorrow. “We have already stated that the panchayat polls have become a farce. It has become a joke. There is no democracy in West Bengal. If opposition parties cannot submit nominations, how do you expect an election to take place,” Basu said.
Currently, the TMC controls 90 per cent of the Panchayat seats, apart from all the Zilla Parishads of the state. So, why is a regional powerhouse like TMC giving so much importance to elections that it has won without even breaking a sweat since it came to power in 2011? The answer lies in the 2008 Panchayat polls when then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was facing heat over the Nandigram violence.
CPI(M) ceding ground to BJP?
It was the panchayat polls in 2008 that set off alarm bells for the Left’s 30-year government and the first signal that the ground below them started shifting. Three years down the line, Mamata Banerjee did what many thought was far-fetched — dislodge the Left. So, panchayat polls are the best wind vanes to judge the mood. The TMC’s stellar performance in 2013 panchayat polls, when it won the maximum number of zilla parishads, also saw the party bag 34 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, giving further credence to the theory above.
In 2018, it is not the Left, but the BJP that is posing a challenge to Didi and TMC. In Mukul Roy, they have lost a master tactician who also doubled up as an election strategist and political adviser to Mamata Banerjee. From a fringe player in 2013 to becoming the main opposition party in terms of vote share garnered this year (Cooch Behar and Uluberia bypolls), the saffron party has well and truly dislodged the Left as the main challenger to the TMC.
However, Hossain said the deteriorating organizational strength of the CPM and Congress has benefitted the BJP. Brushing aside claims that BJP has become a headache for the party, he said, “The fact that three major political parties (BJP, CPI(M) and Congress) have ganged up against the TMC, speaks volumes about the strength of the party.”
Data, though, tells a different story. In the 2013 panchayat elections, BJP received a meagre three per cent votes after fielding only 9,000 candidates in the 58,692 seats-strong rural body elections. Five years later, the party has fielded 34,507 nominations, which is 12,406 more than CPM, which has filed 22,102 nominations.
“Supporters of CPM and Congress have moved to the BJP in the last few years. BJP’s vote share has increased rapidly in previous bypolls, which is indicative enough that the party has managed to strengthen its organisational base in the state. It is also apparent from the recent incidents of violence that BJP workers were at the receiving end of ruling party terror in most cases,” a political analyst told Indian Express.
However, it seems a tacit understanding between CPM and BJP to corner the TMC has been in the works clandestinely. The Indian Express had on Tuesday reported about CPM and BJP quietly sharing space to face the Mamata Banerjee-ruled party. In Nadia district, 130 km north of Kolkata, election graffiti on walls have the lotus symbol of the BJP and the hammer-and-sickle of CPM on the same side along with the names of candidates and a common appeal.
Ram Navami trigger behind spate of violence
The recent Ram Navami violence is a case in point. Since last year, the BJP, in its bid to capture the majority Hindu votes, started organising Ram Navami yatras across the state, attempting to portray TMC as a pro-Muslim party. This year too was no different, except for the fact that TMC jumped into the bandwagon and organized massive Ram Navami events, dwarfing those of the BJP. However, the ploy backfired as three people were killed and nearly two dozen injured in clashes during Ram Navami processions at various places, including Purulia, Murshidabad, West Bardhman, Asansol, Raniganj and Malda. Moreover, Mamata’s attempt to play the Hindutva card to appropriate BJP’s hegemony over it has not gone down well with minority community leaders, who have been TMC’s major vote bank over the years.
To some extent, the Ram Navami violence and the panchayat election fiasco has dented Mamata’s image at a time when the TMC supremo is trying to take the lead in forming a federal front to take on the Narendra Modi juggernaut in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. There is also disquiet back home. News that the government has readied a bill that will restrict teachers and professors from interacting directly with the media has led to allegations of authoritarianism. The draft bill also seeks to stop any aggrieved teacher from going to the court against the government.
However, Hossain believes otherwise. The TMC leader said the Bengal CM has been the only voice who has stood up and protested against the attempts by the BJP to allegedly divide people along religious and caste lines as well as against the false promises that they made during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “From bringing black money from Swiss banks to 2 crore jobs, Narendra Modi has failed to fulfill even one of its pre-poll promises. Now, when questions are being raised, the BJP is trying to divide people and fueling tension through activities like Ram Navami,” the Malda district president said, adding that Bengal, the land of Ramkrishna and Swami Vivekananda, need not be taught the Hindutva rulebook.
Social media to reach out to rural voters
The battle between the TMC and BJP is not only being fought out in the streets, but in the social media as well. The TMC’s student wing, Trinamool Chatra Parishad, has engaged its cadres in various colleges of districts to create awareness about the developmental work of the government. The TMC leadership has also asked its party workers to remain active on social media in order to counter any “misuse to foment trouble in the state”, similar to what happened during the Basirhat communal violence last year. Several BJP leaders, including Nupur Sharma, a BJP spokesperson, was booked for sharing a photo of the 2002 Gujarat riots and claiming it to be an image captured during the Basirhat clashes.
Meanwhile, the BJP has put up a 24×7 dedicated team who are tasked with ensuring that messages, video clips of speeches of its leaders and the development work by the Narendra Modi government are communicated to the people over the social media. The saffron party, however, seems to have taken a leaf out of the TMC’s Sabooj Sathi scheme and has promised scooters, laptops and mobile phones to youngsters if it comes to power.
“The youth needs technological support these days. Scooty or scooter is also very important for communication. If we come to power here, then we will make arrangements to provide scooters to youth. For school students, we will also try to make arrangements for laptops and mobile phones. We will also try to provide meals to people at a low price like Amma meals (Amma Canteen concept) in Tamil Nadu,” BJP state president Dilip Ghosh had said last month.