Corruption-Struck TMC Readies for Biggest Challenge: Ensuring Violence-Free Panchayat Polls

The unprecedented violence in 2018 resulting in the TMC’s uncontested victory in a record number of seats cost the party dearly in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

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Kolkata: On Tuesday, during a meeting with the party’s Purba Midnapore district unit leaders, Trinamool Congress (TMC) all-India general secretary and Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee reportedly instructed leaders not to spoil the party’s image with violence during the coming panchayat election, at any cost.

“Abhishek Banerjee said that it’s better to lose a few panchayat seats than damage the party’s image with violence. We have to focus on the big battle in 2024. No muscle flexing will be tolerated during the panchayat election, he made it clear,” said Firoza Bibi, the party’s MLA from Panskura Paschim in the district who was present at the meeting.

Notably, Purba Midnapore is the district the state’s current leader of the opposition, BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari, comes from. His father, Sisir, and younger brother, Dubyendu, hold the two Lok Sabha seats in the district but they have no connection with the TMC since Suvendu joined the BJP.

Banerjee reportedly issued the same instructions during his interaction with leaders from Paschim Bardhaman district the same day and with the leadership of West Midnapore and Jhargram districts the day before.

These meetings were part of his district-wise meetings to decide on organisational changes and candidate selection process for the panchayat election, which are likely to take place in December or the first two months of the next year, according to senior leaders of the party.

Violence during West Bengal’s panchayat elections has widely been linked to the scope of corruption at the grassroots level. Now that the party is struggling to recover from the blow of two of its senior leaders – Partha Chatterjee and Anubrata Mandal – landing up in jail on corruption charges, ensuring a violence-free panchayat election is a prerequisite for faring well in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, a TMC Lok Sabha MP said on the condition of anonymity.

Political observers echoed the MP, saying a repeat of 2018 would be ‘harakiri’ for the state’s ruling party. However, they also think conducting a violence-free election will not be easy.

Also read: TMC May Have Sacked Partha Chatterjee, But Its Problems With Corruption Run Deep

“It will be difficult, as those enjoying power at the local level and getting benefits will not like to give away their place voluntarily,” said Udayan Bandyopadhyay, a columnist who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata. “The party has previously failed to show any control at the grassroots level. Now, if they really have political will, they should rope in the administration to ensure a monitoring system. They will have to display a strong will,” he added.

He feels that there is hardly any possibility of opposition parties doing anything spectacular in the rural polls. However, a free polling will help the TMC identify areas of weak public support that they can focus on before the Lok Sabha election. “The first step would be to ensure that opposition party supporters are allowed to file nominations. The second step is violence-free polling day,” Bandyopadhyay said.

TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee. Photo: PTI

According to Partha Pratim Biswas, a professor of construction engineering at Jadavpur University, a violence-free panchayat election sounds unlikely because of the TMC’s track record. He said that Abhishek Banerjee had also asked for a violence-free civic polls and yet, the TMC had recorded 80-90% polling in their favour in many municipal seats, which he said was indicative of a manipulated election.

“It has become evident to the people, through the exposure to the school recruitment scam and the cow and coal smuggling scams, that opposition-free politics was aimed at ensuring checkless loot. Therefore, the TMC will face resistance this year in the panchayat election and any resistance will instinctively bring out the natural violence in their way of operation,” Biswas said.

A memory that haunts

Incidentally, Abhishek, chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, had a different approach ahead of the 2018 rural polls. He and Suvendu Adhikari – the latter was still a leading face of the TMC at the time – had launched an intense campaign urging party supporters to ensure an opposition-free Panchayati Raj system.

As a result of the TMC’s intimidation and violence in the run up to the rural polls, elections were held in only 31,812 of 48,636 seats in gram panchayats and 6,158 of the 9,217 panchayat samiti seats – roughly in two-thirds of the seats. One-thirds of the seats were won uncontested.

Violence marred the polling days as well and the final result, including uncontested victories, revealed that TMC won 793 of 824 (96.23%) zilla parishad seats, 8,062 of 9,214 (87.5%) seats of the panchayat samitis, and 38,338 of the 48,636 (78.82%) seats in gram panchayats.

However, the party’s Lok Sabha election debacle in 2019 has also been widely attributed to their panchayat election excesses – the TMC’s Lok Sabha tally came down from 34 in 2014 to 22 in 2019, with people angry with the TMC for the party’s 2018 behaviour taking advantage of the presence of central armed police forces and voting out at the TMC from many areas.

Abhishek’s tone changed after the TMC’s 2019 Lok Sabha election shock and he has been speaking of violence-free elections since 2020. The civic polls held earlier this year were largely free from violence, mostly because the TMC faced little resistance in the first place, as the BJP and the Left were unable to recover from the assembly election blow.

Image recovery drive

Speaking on the present scenario, a leader from Paschim Bardhaman district said after the meeting with Abhishek, “It seems, many sitting panchayat members will not get renomination. The party is starting the process of identifying leaders with clean images for the panchayat election.”

Abhishek is currently busy leading the party’s image recovery drive, saying on repeated occasions that the party will not tolerate corruption. The party is citing how it promptly acted against as senior a leader as Chatterjee. Some initiatives at image recovery have already taken place. While the party has completely dumped Chatterjee, major organisational overhaul took place in the district and block level leadership across the state, bringing new faces to the fore.

Among actions, on August 6, the administration in Nadia district lodged an FIR against the pradhan of the TMC-run Betai-II gram panchayat, who has since then gone absconding. District TMC leaders said this reflected how the party was against corruption.

On August 18, the state panchayat and rural development department instructed every district administration to identify corruption in at least two centrally-sponsored schemes, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna, lodge an FIR against those found involved and take steps in recovering misappropriated funds.

Besides, the government appointed a new president for the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education. Manik Bhattacharya, who became a TMC MLA in 2021, held the position since 2011. Calcutta high court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay removed him on June 20 for alleged involvement in the school recruitment scam. Even though Bhattacharya has challenged the order, the appointment of a new president shows the government does not want Bhattacharya back.

The new president Goutam Paul told the media: “From today, everything will happen transparently. Teachers Eligibility Test exams will be held every year, results will be published and recruitments will happen.”

Contradiction in approach

However, there are also some contradictions in the party’s approach. While disassociating the party completely from Chatterjee – one of the top leaders of the party – the TMC has backed Anubrata Mandal, a member of the party’s national executive but of far lower stature than Chatterjee. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee herself came out in the open for Mandal, asking “Ki korechhe Keshto? (What has Keshto done?)” “One lakh Keshtos will be born for every Keshto you arrest.”

Keshto is Mandal’s nickname and Banerjee fondly calls him that. She alleged that the central agencies were harassing Mandal, the party’s district unit president, for good electoral performance. “He didn’t want anything (for himself). I offered him a Rajya Sabha seat. He declined,” she said.

The CBI has claimed to unearth properties worth over a crore rupees linked to Mandal. He is in jail in connection with a cow smuggling case.

Besides, while making changes in the cabinet in the aftermath of Chatterjee’s arrest, she also inducted Udayan Guha, a leader from Cooch Behar district in north Bengal who has been accused of unleashing terror in the Dinhata area to win the September 2021 by-election, bagging 84% of the polled votes, and ensuring an opposition-free Dinhata municipal elections held earlier this year.

Notably, Dinhata is also the town where Union home minister Amit Shah’s junior in the cabinet, Nishith Pramanik, comes from.

Referring to the chief minister’s backing of Mandal, CPI(M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty said, “It proves what we have long been alleging – the share of illegal proceeds reached Kalighat.” Kalighat is the neighbourhood where the chief minister lives.

Explaining the party’s different stance on Chatterjee and Mandal, veteran TMC Lok Sabha MP Sougata Roy said, “In Chatterjee’s case, everyone could see (on television) stacks of cash in possession of his female friend. The Central agencies have nothing against Mandal as of now, except for allegations.”

Psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, does not feel corruption is going to be a major issue in the rural polls.

“In Bengal’s elections, corruption has not been a deciding factor. Elections are won on the basis of electoral machinery and muscle power. Their electoral machinery has remained intact. I do not see any danger for the TMC in the panchayat elections. Given the vacuum in the opposition space, I doubt even if violence in rural polls would cost the party anything in the Lok Sabha elections,” Chakraborty said.

Chakraborty thinks communal polarisation would be the dominant issue even in the rural polls. “The TMC is still enjoying massive support among the Muslims, who make up over one-forth of the state’s population. They will easily sweep with the help of Hindu voters who are beneficiaries of state government schemes.”

The recent organisational overhaul in the TMC has more to do with the Banerjee junior setting the team his own way than with corruption. “After Chatterjee’s fall from grace, there is no longer any opposition to Abhishek. He is now shaping the organisation his way,” Chakraborty said.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an author and journalist based in Kolkata.