Bengal Panchayat Results Predict Shifting Winds?
BJP, has been pushed to a distant second position, Left and Congress share runners-up trophy
Did West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee campaign in the Panchayat Polls in West Bengal this time? Well, she did, but not really. Why? Because everything Mamata Banerjee does has a twist in its tale!
The crucial and complex local Polls, held in thousands of contentious and conflict-ridden zones, with vicious violence always lurking in the air, was handled by her nephew and apparent heir of the Trinamool Congress – Abhishek Banerjee.
The nephew, once controversial and in the shadows, and now trapped along with this wife in the labyrinthine cobweb of cases alleged by the Enforcement Directorate, led from the front. he travelled across the deepest interiors of beautiful, rain-soaked Bengal, and, as all reports point out, led with a certain lucidity and confidence, and he led well.
The final results, still to be officially announced because of a legal catch, point to the fact that the nephew was unleashed by the aunt, once again, to prove a point! And that too, while a united opposition, and, she, herself, is all set to take on a lonely, discredited and alienated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the 2024 elections.
Point proven, so what is the new deal in West Bengal? Is this maddening spiral of violence at the local level, a new phenomenon? Or, is it, the chronicle of a tale foretold, etched as bloody writing on the wall, when a one-dimensional and powerful Communist Party of India (Marxist) ruled the roost for more than three decades, with its octopus-like hold on the vast, green countryside.
It established its entrenched, extra-constitutional power across the lanes and backlanes of the state. In terms of micro-management, the Panchayat and local Polls were the original and long-lasting landmarks reflecting the omnipresent power of the commissars at the party headquarters in Alimuddin Street in Kolkata.
If political power was glued within the top brass of the party, it flew from the barrel of the Panchayats with its localised muscle power.
This is exactly where the political establishment of the Left consolidated its formidable, well-oiled power apparatus, year after year, without fail, in all kinds of elections, from the Panchayat to the Assembly and Lok Sabha Polls. That is why, during the heady and polarising time of elections, the CPM had coined an original term to describe this unique electoral specialisation, albeit, as unofficial folklore: ‘Scientific Rigging!’
Despite the poll prophets and doomsayers’ predictions, unlike the 66 percent mark in 2018, this time around 90 percent of the seats were contested. That certainly marks a good omen for democracy, despite the violence, which has, unsurprisingly, continued even after the results have been declared.
Didi, remains universally popular, especially among women voters, especially women in the rural areas. Predictably, her party has yet again made a clean sweep in the Polls.
Political observers point out that the social welfare schemes which were started by her have continued to consolidate her hold in the margins, especially among women in both rural and urban Bengal. This includes, among other benefits, free primary, secondary and higher education for girls, called Kanyashree, health insurance worth Rs 5 lakh for women heads of the family instead of the male head, Lakshmi Bhandar scheme of Rs 1000 per month, deposited in the account of women, and free ration to everyone, a scheme which was successfully and effectively launched during the pandemic.
In the current Panchayat Polls, the BJP, predictably, has been pushed to a distant second position. The Left and Congress have shared the runners-up trophy, even while there are still miles to go before they can come around the second position, dismantling the BJP.
The CPM is of the opinion that after the final, official count is declared, the vote share of the Congress, CPM and the Indian Secular Front would be much higher than the BJP, thereby pushing the party to a third position.
While the final statistics are still being compiled of this huge election process, in the gram Panchayat Polls, the TMC has won or is leading in almost 36,000 seats of the total 61,591 seats it had contested. A decline of around seven per cent in their vote tally and a marginal upswing in that of the BJP and the Left is not going to bother the ruling party in Bengal.
“The votes that Trinamool has received in the Panchayat elections have made us self-reliant. We have seen plenty of violence, hatred and the incessant use of central agencies to harass Trinamool leaders and workers… This mandate strengthens us further,” Mamata Banerjee said.
The BJP has won or is leading in 9,872 of the 38,475 seats it had fought, while the CPM has won or is leading in 3,004 of the 35,411 gram Panchayat seats it had contested, with a marginal increase in its vote share.
In the Panchayat Samiti Polls, the TMC has won or is leading in the 9,419 seats it had contested, marking a formidable strike rate of 70.33 percent.
There are certain characteristic signs emerging from the results and points to marginal shifts in the political paradigm in grassroots Bengal. For instance, the sudden rise of the Indian Secular Front (ISF), that got a drubbing during the Assembly Polls in 2019, despite the hype around its alliance with the CPM.
The TMC heavy-weight, Arabul Islam, saw a shocking fall in fortune in his stronghold of Bhangar, around 30 km from Kolkata. Bhangar, too, has witnessed unprecedented violence, and it started here much before the July 8 Polls. Unfortunately, the violence continues till this day.
The ISF and Jomi, Jibika, Bastutontro O Poribesh Raksha Committee, in an alliance, won 23 of the 24 seats in Polerhat 2 gram Panchayat, sending shock waves in the TMC camp.
The TMC apparently lost the Polls here by small margins, even as low as five and seven votes. Arabul Islam belongs to the Polerhat 2 gram Panchayat. He won the Bhangar Assembly seat for the first time in 2006. Since then, he has reigned supreme in his backyard.
The Raksha Committee itself came up as a progressive collective which waged a long and protracted struggle that began during the CPM regime, against land acquisition for a project. Activists went to jail, and Bangar is a landmark of sorts, because it anticipated the massive struggle against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram.
The movement rocked the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government at the Writers’ Building in Kolkata, and which propelled Mamata Banerjee’s rise in the electoral graph with her catchy slogan, ‘Ma, Maati, Manush’, thereby, touching the deeper, emotional chords of the Bengali subconscious.
The ISF had earlier come up with a lot of hyperbole during the Assembly Polls in 2019. Its firebrand leader, young Abbas Siddiqui, representing the highly revered sufi shrine of Phurpura Sharif, found himself on a sticky wicket after he mouthed extremist and sexist speeches, especially targeting a Muslim actress in Bengali cinema who had won as a TMC MP earlier. His militant speeches were roundly criticised by the secular sections, and the CPM had to face flak because of its alliance with ISF. However, despite the huge crowds lapping up his rabble-rousing rhetoric, Siddiqui lost badly to the TMC.
In fact, the writing was on the wall in laid-back Phurphura Sharif on a hot summer afternoon during the Assembly Polls. This reporter had travelled through the interiors and spoke to a cross-section of people, including youngsters, besotted by the militant rhetoric of ‘Abbasbhai’.
However, when probed deeper, the cracks opened up faster than one could imagine.
The entire Muslim population, especially women, were absolutely clear that they had to defeat the BJP. And to defeat the BJP, they would vote Mamata Banerjee, come what may.
This was the pattern across the entire landscape of Bengal. Muslims voted overwhelmingly for the TMC, including in urban constituencies like Kolkata.
Indeed, the Muslims of Bengal, unlike, for instance in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, have no threat perception from the Hindutva forces. This has been a historically inherited phenomenon in a state where communal polarisation just does not work.
The BJP tried the polarising NRC-CAA card; it tried to do ugly whisper campaigns against what they called the ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’. It even tried to sway the rural and urban educated voters using the slogan of ‘Jai Sri Ram’, all of which collapsed like a pack of cards.
In a state which loves its Durga Puja, it is the female symbol which is universally worshipped – Kali and Durga. Besides, it is the secular and syncretic synthesis of the philosophy, vision and ideals of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Vivekananda, Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchand Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore, which is deeply embedded in the social and cultural ethos of Bengal.
More so, Muslims share the same, inherited, cultural and social history with the Hindus across the borders of west and east Bengal – Bangladesh: in dress, food, cuisine, customs, language, music, folklore, arts and literature.
And festivals are celebrated together, as in Bangladesh. It is a shared collective consciousness which makes the secular fabric of Bengal so original and beautiful, and, certainly, the Left has played a great and historic role in stitching this incredible fabric!
There has been a simmering narrative during the Polls that the Muslims are moving away from the TMC. These elections have proved this hypothesis wrong. Muslims have yet again stayed firmly with Didi, as in the past; and, they would remain firmly with her in 2024 as well, there is no doubt about it.
Murshidabad and Malda in the border region have always been famous for its mangoes, and Congress doyen Abu Ghani Khan Choudhury. That tradition has sustained despite the Congress scoring zero in the last parliamentary and Assembly Polls, in tune with the CPM.
However, during the Assembly Polls in 2019, these Congress bastions shifted decisively in support of the TMC. Why?
This is because the enlightened Muslim voter did not want to waste his vote on the Congress, despite his/her traditional loyalty. Thereby, they voted for the TMC to defeat the BJP, as was the trend all over Bengal.
However, this time, as in a by-election earlier, the Congress has done well in both Murshidabad and Malda. It is clearly trying to regain its old support base, and in the local Polls, a section of the Muslims decided to restore their faith in the grand old party.
Said an academic based in Kolkata: “The marginal consolidation of the Left and Congress is a good sign, both for Bengal and Indian democracy. If they can replace the BJP and regain the second position, then it will be good for the state. Indeed, the BJP should be finished in a deeply secular state which has never had a history of Hindutva in its body-politic.”
Re-polling was done in almost 700 polling booths. Widespread violence has rocked Bengal, and for days it was page-one news in mainline newspapers in Delhi and elsewhere. While the unofficial count is 40 dead, and scores injured, the official count is over 18.
While the BJP and CPM blamed the TMC, the Congress leadership in Delhi chose tactical silence on the issue.
However, Congress leader Digvijay Singh tweeted: “What is happening in the Panchayat Polls in Bengal is frightening. I have been an admirer of Mamata for her grit and determination, but what is happening is unpardonable. We know you bravely faced a similar situation in the CPM-rule, but what is happening now is not good for our democracy.”
Leader of the Opposition, BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari, blamed the TMC for the violence. He said: "We had submitted a list of 6,000 booths to the SEC recommending repoll. Actually, false voting had taken place in 18,000 booths at the behest of the Trinamool Congress. We are collecting more evidence... video footage and everything…”
Significantly, the TMC lost many of its cadres in the violence, despite being the ruling party, and despite the popular belief that they engineered the violence. This happened, locals say, because of the huge mobilisation and the tough fight given by the BJP, and the CPM and Congress, pushing the TMC to the wall in some areas.
However, the Opposition parties too have faced the violence allegedly unleashed by the muscle-flexing cadre of the ruling party.
Certainly, these Polls did not follow the old pattern this time whereby voters were not even allowed to come out and vote, or, candidates were not even allowed to file their nominations. So much so, during the first violent phase of an aggressive TMC regime when it first came to power, the CPM had to align with the BJP and seek safety in numbers.
This was a dominant phenomenon prevailing during the time of the CPM as well. Thereby, this has been effectively fine-tuned and inherited by the extra-Constitutional structures of the TMC, which has remodelled itself in the grassroots using similar tactics as practised by the CPM.
That is why the re-polling was peaceful. The TMC did not use violence as a principle, and had to suffer losses of its own cadres. The central forces seem to have tried its best, despite the relentless violence. And the counting was largely done in a peaceful atmosphere.
While the united Opposition prepares to meet in Bangalore, even anticipating an early declaration of Parliamentary election by the Prime Minister, who, too, it seems, has sensed the shift in the wind in contemporary India.
The massive victory at the grassroots of the TMC, after the decisive drubbing of the BJP in Karnataka, sends signals to the entire country. Certainly, despite the cliché, what Bengal thinks today, the country might be actually thinking tomorrow!