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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 34, August 10, 2013

Panchayat Polls: The Verdict of Rural Bengal

Monday 12 August 2013, by Barun Das Gupta

As expected, rural Bengal has given a massive mandate for the Trinamul Congress in the panchayat polls. The ruling party has captured 13 of the 17 Zilla Parishads, the Left Front one (Jalpaiguri) and the Congress one (Murshidabad). In two districts, Maldah and North Dinajpur, no party has won a clear majority. Compare this with the results of the previous (2008) polls and the sea-change will leap to your eyes: Left Front 13 Zilla Parishads, Congress two and TMC two. The table has now been turned.

Even a cursory glance at the results of the three-tier panchayat polls gives the lie to the heart-rending wailings of the CPI-M and Congress that the TMC won by resorting to ‘wholesale rigging’ unseen and unheard of ever before. Prakash Karat, the CPI-M General Secretary, went on to make the astounding statement that he had never seen rigging on such a massive scale and that his party had never resorted to rigging. This evoked a derisive laughter from the voters of Bengal who had seen how the CPI-M/Left Front had won all elections—panchayat, civic, Assembly and Parliament—from 1982 onward.

No doubt, there were incidents of violence this time also in which workers and supporters of all the three major contestants— the TMC, Congress and CPI-M—were killed or injured. Whoever had the stronger muscle power in an area used that power. It is to be noted that the CPI-M workers were targeted most in those districts or areas where the common people had to suffer the most at the hands of the CPI-M goons during the Left Front regime. Their opponents—even those suspected to beopponents —were murdered, their womenfolk raped and molested, their houses burnt, their crops forcibly harvested and taken away, even their ponds poisoned and the fish killed. These are facts and cannot be made ‘unfacts’. Karat’s hypocritical wailings would fool none.

The panchayat polls have also decimated the Congress in rural Bengal, leaving only the CPI-M as the main Opposition to the TMC. Even in Maldah, the home district of the late Ghani Khan Chowdhury and hitherto supposed to be a citadel of the Congress, the party had to concede the same number of seats to the Left Front as it could win—16. It remains to be seen whether the Congress and LF would join hands to form the new board. The other fort which the Congress successfully retained is Murshidabad where Adhir Chowdhury (now Minister of State for Railways) has been beating the CPI-M in its own game by using the same methods that the CPI-M adopts elsewhere. It was no exception this time also.

Some newspapers and TV channels carried out a ceaseless anti-Trinamul propaganda—better call it a holy jehad—throughout the campaign period. If a CPI-M or Congress activist was killed, it was straightaway imputed to the TMC. But if a TMC worker was killed or a TMC leader heckled, it was due to the faction feuds in the party. The CPI-M and Congress were innocent. The propaganda failed to cut any ice with the rural people because they knew what was what.

Even after the results were out the same propaganda is going on. Take, for example, The Times of India editorial of July 31, which said ‘as many as 15 per cent of the nearly 60,000 seats went uncontested by the Opposition’. It is an example of suppressio very and suggestio falsi. First of all, TMC candidates were returned unopposed in ten and not fifteen per cent seats. Secondly, the editorial deliberately refrains from mentioning that in the 2008 panchayat elections, the CPI-M candidates were returned unopposed in more than ten per cent seats and in 2003, the party’s candidates won more than thirteen per cent seats unopposed. It gives the impression to the reader that this is something which has happened for the first time under TMC rule.

The panchayat polls established another fact also. So long, the TMC was supposed to be a south Bengal-based party. The Congress and Left Front (CPI-M, Forward Bloc and RSP) were dominant in north Bengal. But this belief has now been proved wrong. Cooch Bihar and South Dinajpur Zilla Parishads were won by the TMC. In other north Bengal districts also the TMC registered its presence. Only Jalpaiguri voted emphatically for the Left. The Left Front captured as many as 27 of the 37 Zilla Parishad seats.

Let us take a look now at the districts which were known to be the ‘Red citadels’ of the CPI-M. In the two Medinipurs (east and west) the CPI-M has been virtually wiped out. In West Medinipur the TMC bagged 64 of the 67 Zilla Parishad seats, Left Front two and Congress one. In East Medinipur, out of 60 ZP seats, the TMC captured 55 and LF just five.

 In Burdwan, which is the district of such formidable peasant leaders of the CPI-M as the late Harekrishna Konar and Benoy Chowdhury and of Nirupam Sen and Benoy Konar, the CPI-M has fallen flat on its face. Out of 75 Zilla Parishad seats, the TMC has captured 61. It may be recalled that Nirupam Sen was the Industries Minister in the previous Left Front Government and the most vociferous supporter of the Tatas’ small car project at Singur. In fact it is said that he influenced the then Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, to go the whole hog with the Tatas. Eventually, Nandigram and Singur became the undoing of the CPI-M and its government.

Judging by the reactions of the CPI-M leaders in Kolkata and Delhi, the party is still unwilling to come face-to-face with the harsh reality—that is, its total rejection by the people of West Bengal. They are still trying to fool themselves into believing that it was not the people’s rejection but the TMC’s ‘terror tactics’ that was responsible for the party’s defeat. They are still living in a make-believe world of their own where they believe they still enjoy the overwhelming support of the rural masses, it is only the ‘terror’ struck by the TMC that denied them the victory they deserved. It is the same old leadership—arrogant, haughty, domineering, power-hungry and corrupt—that rules the roost.

The CPI-M can never hope to ‘turn around’ (a phrase that it is fond of repeating often) unless and until the party can purge itself totally of this set of discredited ‘leaders’ who have long lost contact with the masses; unless and until the party can throw up an entirely new set of leaders, who are humble, self-searching, tolerant of criticism and have the zeal and idealism of the Communists of olden days to build up the party from the grassroots level patiently and painstakingly, with doggedness and determination. In the liberalised and globalised India of Manmohan Singh, the ground is becoming more and more favourable every day for the honest and ideologically committed Communists to strike root among the masses, lead them into struggles and build up the party to turn the tide in their favour. Nothing has been lost. Or, more correctly, whatever has been lost can be made good again.

As far as the Trinamul Congress is concerned, its supremo, Mamata Banerjee, should always keep it in her mind that no party can take the people for granted forever. Despite the ceaseless anti-propaganda of her political opponents and the media, the rural people of West Bengal have reposed their faith in her. She has to be worthy of that faith. Her party, too, needs purging of undesirable elements whose utterances and activities can only bring discredit to her and her party.

By their provocative utterances, some of her close lieutenants have played into the hands of the Opposition. The quicker she can discipline her workers at the lower levels and put an end to the constant infighting, the better. As has been seen, dissatisfied TMC workers who failed to get party tickets contested as independents at many places and won. The party has now to think how to put its own house in order and prepare for the coming Lok Sabha polls.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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