As the West Bengal State Election Commission has blown the bugle for the three-tier panchayat polls in West Bengal in March next year, political circles feel that the rural civic body polls would be under totally different circumstances compared to the previous three occasions in 2008, 2013 and 2018.
In 2008, the rural civic body polls were conducted when the ruling Left Front was under tremendous pressure because of the twin movement by the opposition Trinamool Congress against land acquisition at Singur in Hooghly district and Nandigram in East Midnapore district. Although the Left Front government managed to retain the majority of the seats in the three tiers of panchayat namely Zilla Parishad, Panchayat Samiti and Gram Panchayat, it was evident in different pockets of the state that the strong red fort in rural West Bengal had started developing severe cracks.
Those cracks widened significantly in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and ultimately in 2011 those cracks led to the collapse of the Left Front regime which had ruled the state at a stretch for 34 years since 1977.
The 2013 West Bengal panchayat elections were the first rural civic body polls in the state with the Trinamool Congress in power and the principal opposition Left Front totally clueless about how to resurrect their collapsing organization network. As expected, the Trinamool Congress swept the polls with the Left Front hardly being able to highlight any plausible issue against the ruling party.
The 2018 three-tier panchayat polls witnessed the continuation of the Trinamool Congress’s absolute supremacy in capturing the majority of the three-tiers of the rural civic body. However, the results in 2018 were different since the BJP for the first time emerged as the principal opposition to the Trinamool Congress, pushing the Left Front and the Congress to the third and fourth position respectively.
Political analysts believe that there were three common factors in the panchayat polls in 2008, 2013 and 2018. The first was that all these three polls were marred by violence with a number of deaths. The second factor was that all these three polls witnessed a major rise in the Trinamool Congress’s vote share which reached a peak in 2018. The third factor was the steep decline in the Left Front vote share in rural Bengal, by virtue of which it had ruled the state from 1977 to 2011.
Political observers feel that in 2013 and 2018 in the two rural civic body polls conducted with the Trinamool Congress in power, the opposition was mostly clueless about the issues to be raised against the ruling party barring the regular corruption related issues in the day-to-day functioning of the three tiers of the panchayat system. The Trinamool Congress won the major percentage of seats.
However, political observers feel that this time there are several strong issues which the opposition would like to highlight in the panchayat polls. Ironically most of these issues are not related to the rural civic bodies.
The first issue will be of corruption and the arrests of heavyweight leaders and ministers. “This is an issue which has really pushed the ruling Trinamool Congress on the backfoot with pictures and videos of huge cash recovery pertaining to the teacher’s recruitment scam being splashed all over. The Trinamool Congress leaders are in a defensive mode as the party had to distance itself from the former West Bengal education minister and Trinamool Congress secretary general, Partha Chatterjee, who was stripped of all his ministerial and party portfolios. Now it is to be seen how aggressive the ruling party will be in countering this campaign in the rural civic body polls,” said political analyst Arundhati Mukherjee.
Secondly, this will be the first time that the Trinamool Congress will be contesting the polls with one of their principal election strategists, Anubrata Mondal, behind the bars because of his alleged involvement in the cattle smuggling scam. Observers feel that despite being just the party’s Birbhum district president, Mondal had always been playing a key role in finalising the strategies for his party in the Birbhum-adjacent Trinamool Congress stronghold districts. “So surely his absence will be a major setback for the rural level activists of the Trinamool Congress not just in Birbhum but also in the districts adjacent to Birbhum,” Mukherjee said.
But all are worried that 2023 will witness a repetition of the bloodbath of 2008, 2013 and 2018. While the State Election Commission has hinted that it is in favour of conducting the polls with the state police forces in charge of the security, the opposition parties have already started demanding the deployment of the central armed forces.