Resist the TMC’s Authoritarian Bid to Appropriate Panchayat Power

The TMC government of West Bengal and the State Election Commission are embroiled in a protracted legal battle over the ensuing panchayat elections in the state. On the face of it, the battle may well seem to be over the issue of supremacy of the state government and the state election commission over their respective jurisdictions or domains, but we must see it in the evolving political context of West Bengal and the hostile and contemptuous attitude of the TMC government to various institutions of democracy.

The panchayats were the first to reveal the direction of ‘paribartan’ or change of guard in West Bengal when in the wake of Singur and Nandigram, the TMC managed to wrest control of almost half the village panchayats in 2008. The ‘paribartan’ wave could be felt even more strongly in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and by the time the Assembly elections were held in 2011, the results were a foregone conclusion for all but the politically blind. But now this is 2013, and the panchayat elections will mark the first major test for the new regime.

The TMC has now been in power for two years and by all indications disillusionment has already started setting in among large sections of the society in West Bengal. Like most other states in India today, West Bengal is also in the grip of a deepening economic crisis, and the state government has hardly done anything to provide any relief to the people. On the contrary, there has been a renewed campaign to deprive people of whatever access and right they had to land and tenancy. The incidence of peasant suicides has also grown in West Bengal and the government is only busy in denying these suicides. On top of it, the rural population has been hit hard by the chit fund scam and there can be no denying the complicity of the TMC, as of the CPI(M) in the past, in the phenomenal rise of this dubious web of swindling.

The only plea of the state government now is that it has been in power for only two years, which is too short a time span especially viewed against the 34-year-long tenure of the CPI(M) and Left Front. Well, the CPI(M) never won a 34-year-long mandate, it won seven successive elections that allowed it to rule for such a long period. And in a good majority of West Bengal panchayats, the TMC has already ruled for five years and has proved itself one up on corrupt and degenerated CPI(M) panchayat-lords. This is why the TMC regime is wary of the people venting their anger through free and fair panchayat polls. As has already happened with elections in student unions, factory unions and provident fund trustee boards, the TMC is desperate to secure control of panchayats through unbridled muscle-flexing and terror tactics.

In flagrant violation of the rules and established norms of panchayat elections, the government twice unilaterally announced election dates thereby clearly seeking to arrogate to itself powers that belong to the state election commission. It wanted to have a single-day poll schedule in utter disregard of the sane advice of conducting elections in a three-phase schedule. Anybody familiar with the ground reality of West Bengal will hardly question the commission’s insistence on adequate deployment of security forces.

In fact, there are reasons to apprehend that in many places opposition candidates will be forcibly prevented from filing their nomination papers. The commission must make sure that the entire process of election right from nomination and campaigning to casting and counting of votes and declaration of results is free from administrative bias and political terror and violence.

Despite being the main opposition party, the CPI(M) is not in a position to offer any credible opposition or resistance to the TMC’s politics of terror and violation of democratic norms. Much of what the TMC is doing today is sheer imitation of the CPI(M)-style politics of control and domination. The people of West Bengal have not forgotten the lynching of six agricultural labourers in Karanda village of Bardhaman district in the May 1993 panchayat elections – the only ‘crime’ of these agricultural labourers was that they had dared to revolt against the feudal-kulak domination in the CPI(M). The victims of Karanda massacre are still awaiting justice from the Supreme Court after the guilty were all acquitted by the High Court much the same way as the guilty are currently being acquitted in Bihar. And Karanda has been no aberration – the people of Kerala have seen similar CPI(M)-led violence in Onchiyam and many other places.

The TMC must not however be allowed to get away with its politics of terror and subversion of democratic procedures and institutions. The way Mamata Banerjee and her government are treating the election commission is symptomatic of the regime’s arrogant attitude and its desperate design to monopolise power on every level in the state. The fighting peasantry and the democratic intelligentsia of West Bengal must once again come together. If they had joined hands in the wake of Singur and Nandigram to vote the arrogant CPI(M) regime out of power, they must come together now to resist the TMC’s authoritarian dispensation and assert the voice of grassroots democracy.

Liberation Archive