Ambushed! Panchayat Elections in West Bengal

'Open meddling' by the TMC government, 'grassroots collaboration' by its sworn political rivals, and rulings by the Supreme Court and Calcutta HC do not bode well for the legitimacy and credibility of free and fair elections.

Local elections are usually tense but otherwise relatively minor affairs. Not so, the panchayat elections in West Bengal. The 2018 panchayat elections are unprecedented for a lot of different reasons.

The legitimacy of the election process has been challenged, politically and in the courts, by the parties in opposition to the Trinamool Congress. A partial and temporary reprieve by the Supreme Court on May 10, has stayed the Calcutta high court’s order directing West Bengal’s State Election Commission (SEC) to accept a radical change – accepting as official, nominations filed by email. But Chief Justice Deepak Mishra observed “What is worrying us is the high court order directing e-filing
of nominations.”

The Supreme Court has, however, directed the SEC to withhold declaring the results for the 20,000 plus seats where the Trinamool Congress won by default, as there were no other contestants. What will be the fate of these 20,000 plus candidates who were declared winners following the Supreme Court’s order is uncertain. Nor is it clear what will happen afterwards.

The apex court is worried “that 34% of the candidates had been declared elected as unopposed.” Its order on suspending the declaration of results for the 34% seats implies that on May 17, the SEC will announce the results for only 65.8% of the total 58,692 seats of the three-tier panchayats. The Supreme Court’s stay on the Calcutta high court’s order directing the SEC
to accept the nominations filed by email or WhatsApp read together with its observations expressing worry that 34.2% of the seats had been won uncontested by the Trinamool Congress imply that the purity of the election process is in danger of being seriously contaminated.

While the Calcutta high court’s order had permitted technology to overcome or perhaps bypass the problems it perceived of terror tactics deployed by old-fashioned political managers, the Supreme Court has been more cautious. The ruling by both the courts indirectly confirm what West Bengal already knows. The SEC has failed to function as an autonomous agency
established by the Constitution of India ,“vested” with the role of “superintendence, direction and control of the entire process for conduct of elections to the panchayats and municipal bodies.” The worst kept secret in West Bengal is the open meddling by the Trinamool Congress government in the process of free and fair elections.

The legal battle is, however, far from over. Following the Supreme Court’s decision on how the elections will be held, that is, there ought to be “absolute fairness,” keeping in view the concept of “purity of an election in a democracy,” the SEC must now find a way of protecting the sanctity of the secret ballot and free and safe access to polling booths. Exactly how this will be done is difficult to predict, because the West Bengal government does not have adequate police personnel to man all the polling booths for the 825 zilla parishad constituencies spread over 20 zilla parishads and one mahakuma parishad, 9,240 panchayat samiti constituencies in 341 panchayat samitis and 4,8751 gram panchayat constituencies in 3,354 gram panchayats.

Given that there are thousands of sensitive and ultra-sensitive booths spread across the state, securing the booths to protect the purity of the elections is going to be difficult for the SEC, whose capabilities for doing so at the nomination filing stage have been challenged in court. By refusing central security forces for the panchayat elections, the West Bengal government has made it more difficult. Its efforts to rope in police personnel from neighbouring states to augment its own force has not worked out.

The pre-poll process has been the most violent and thousands of candidates have been obstructed by warring political parties as well as warring rivals within the same party from filing nominations. Credit:PTI

The West Bengal government has promised to fill the gap of sufficient policemen by roping in auxiliaries from the civic volunteer force, whose usual function is to manage traffic under police supervision at peak times and chip in with crowd control on special occasions. The problem of not enough police to protect the purity of elections is a long standing one in West Bengal, where previous regimes used home guards as supplements.

Civic volunteers or the auxiliaries used by the police are barely skilled young men, entirely obliged to the ruling party, for the pittance they earn. Using these hapless youth as part of a political battle to extend the domination of West Bengal by the Trinamool Congress is calculated wickedness. To survive these young men will do what they are expected to do, follow orders, regardless of who issues them.

The pre-poll process has been the most violent and thousands of candidates have been obstructed by warring political parties as well as warring rivals within the same party from filing nominations.

The presence of gangs of Trinamool Congress operatives manning the gates of government offices, assaults on the media including wrongful detention of journalists, both men and women, indicates the degree to which the election process has been compromised. It is also true that in some places the opposition used similar intimidation tactics to prevent rivals from participating in the democratic process. The Trinamool Congress insists that mercenaries are imported from neighbouring states by its enemies and the opposition insists that hired goons are deployed by the ruling party.

Along with death, injuries, brutal beatings, ravaged homes and vandalised political party offices, candidates and families of candidates have become political refugees because the intensity of the violence has been so high. And the vulnerability of women in situations of violence has spiralled as complaints of physical and verbal abuse have flooded the social media, political party offices and the State Election Commission.

Complaints that the Trinamool Congress has ambushed all its political rivals and prevented them from filing nominations and campaigning are as true as Mamata Banerjee’s counter complaint of a nexus against her party by her political rivals. In Nadia, parts of East and West Midnapore and Burdwan districts, the unimaginable has happened; at the grassroots, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)s have quietly closed ranks against the Trinamool Congress (though this has been officially denied by the CPI(M)). The pattern of quiet collaboration by parties that are not officially partners has taken place, with the Congress and CPI(M) working together in Malda and Murshidabad districts.

A joint rally by Left parties and Congress to protest against violence during filing of nominations during panchayat elections due to be held on May 14. Credit: CPI(M) Twitter

Regardless of how many people CPI(M)’s West Bengal committee throws out for joining forces with the BJP, and accusations of  its general secretary Sitaram Yechury that the Trinamool Congress has used violence to scare away the CPI(M) and make room for the BJP, at the grassroots, there is a realignment. The BJP is perceived by some of the CPI(M)’s managers as a powerful party with whom a tacit understanding will serve to protect candidates and supporters from the violence of the ruling party.

The compulsion of political rivals to close ranks against the Trinamool Congress is a fall-out of how the ruling party has successfully co-opted the police and the administration as its auxiliaries in West Bengal. The line between the machineries of the state and the party in government have been blurred to the point of being meaningless.

The 2018 panchayat elections in West Bengal seem set to make history, for the wrong reasons. The interventions by the Supreme Court and the Calcutta high court, the capitulation of the SEC to pressure from the government, the unprincipled collaborations of sworn political enemies for electoral gains, the capsize of the police and the administration have sucked the legitimacy and credibility out of the process and eroded the idea of free choice and peaceful participation. If the model of capture and control used by the Trinamool Congress succeeds, as it seems likely to do, the concern is that it will be replicated in West Bengal again and again, by whichever party comes to power.

The larger concern is that the model will be copied and used in other places as well. It is noteworthy that the tactics used by the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal to decimate the CPI(M), by burning its party offices in remote rural areas, vandalising the homes of its supporters, turning voters into political refugees fleeing a vengeful victor has been replicated in Tripura after the BJP’s victory earlier this year. The escalating violence in Kerala between the BJP-RSS and the CPI(M), with tit for tat
assaults and killings are a reminder of the sort of violence that followed the victory of the Trinamool Congress in 2011 and again in 2016.

In robbing the democratic process, in the very limited sense of free and sort of fair elections, the West Bengal model, as it is emerging, is a dangerously appealing one for ruling parties where the opposition is weak and divided. It is this weakness that the Trinamool Congress highlights to counter the criticism of the opposition and civil society by claiming that its popularity and support is growing and getting stronger, which is why in this panchayat elections, 34% of the seats  went uncontested, till the court stepped in, and were declared for the ruling party.

By converting the elections into a game of survival, the BJP and the CPI(M) have abandoned all qualms about collaborating at the grassroots level. While this will certainly accelerate the process of BJP’s growth as the principal challenger to the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, it will further erode the CPI(M) of its credibility.

Shikha Mukerjee is a senior journalist based in Kolkata.