West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: NDTV
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: NDTV

Village level elections in India have a history of violence, and the May 14 poll in rural West Bengal was no exception. Known as the panchayat elections, they serve as an indication of how the country will vote in the general elections in 2019.

As rural West Bengal went to the polls on May 14, there were unconfirmed reports that 12 people had been killed. However, the state government claimed the number of dead was only six. Meanwhile Mamata Banerjee, who as Chief Minister leads the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which rules the state, claimed the poll was one of the most peaceful in recent times.

Either way, the spate of violence was a clear indication that the three key parties in the state – the TMC, the Communists and the BJP – were willing to push hard to retain or gain new ground in the state.

The panchayats are grass-root self-government bodies that form the foundations of India’s political system. These elections indicate how the largely rural parts of the country are politically inclined. West Bengal is now ruled by the TMC, one of the few opposition parties still holding out against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) incredible political machine, and also has a legacy of being ruled by the Communists for decades.

The BJP is very keen to make inroads into Bengal, while the Communists are desperate to dislodge the TMC in the hope of remaining a viable political entity.

It is a battle for West Bengal and the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is not leaving anything to chance. The BJP is knocking at the door and she cannot afford to yield even at the panchayat level. After all, it was the 2008 panchayat election that pushed her party to power at the state level. More than the Communists, it is the combination of ambitious Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah she has come to fear.

During the polling on May 14, as news of killings from different parts of Bengal started pouring in, TMC senior leader Derek O’Brien claimed that Panchayat elections in West Bengal were always violent and that compared to earlier years, the number of deaths this time was much less.

Needless to say, there was outrage on Twitter. Of course, mostly driven by the BJP and its proxies. The BJP has effectively become the most vocal face of the opposition in Bengal, sidelining the former ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). Later in the day, O’Brien accepted that even the claim of only six dead was too many and said his party aimed for no loss of life in coming elections. 

While many were shocked at O’Brien’s earlier tweet, factually he was correct. On the face of it, the panchayat elections of 2018 were the most peaceful. In 2013, during Mamata Banerjee’s first term as Chief Minister, 20 people were reportedly killed. In 2008, during the last panchayat poll under Communist rule, the number was 47, while in 2003, again under Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) rule, it was 76.

This does not take into account the pre- and post-poll violence. This year, the TMC claimed 15 of their supporters lost their lives before the panchayat poll, while the BJP claimed the number of their supporters killed stood at 52. Both these numbers have not been authenticated by any government agency. In 2003, during the CPI-M’s rule, it was one of the bloodiest, with pre-poll killings numbering 47, while 25 were killed in post-poll violence in Murshidabad district alone.

Beyond the killings

Another trend in the Bengal panchayat elections was the issue of uncontested seats. This year this ‘phenomenon’ created a record of sorts. Of the 58,000-plus seats in the state, only about 38,000 were up for contest. Strangely, the communists and the BJP did not contest a sizable number of seats, leaving the state election commission to declare the lone candidate from the ruling party a winner without a contest.

Just like political killings, there is a recent, if not historic, trend of uncontested seats in West Bengal panchayat elections. Before we delve into past records, let’s look at the reasons given by both the ruling party as well as the opposition for this phenomenon.

Leaders of the ruling TMC, however, rubbish claims about uncontested seats. TMC leaders argue about development under the Mamata Banerjee government. Their logic is that people are so happy with the development work under the present government that they do not want to even contest an election against the ruling party’s candidate.

TMC’s O’Brien even listed the three reasons for the record number of uncontested seats. Many have, of course, criticized this phenomenon and compared it to farcical elections in places like Russia and Pakistan. But as O’Brien said, these are “newborn experts on Bengal.” Panchayat elections in the state have a history even when it comes to this kind of absolutism by a ruling party at local level. Many claim Congress started it, the CPM perfected it and the TMC refined it.

The sins of others

In 2013, the first panchayat election under TMC rule, two years after it won an historic mandate, saw 5,098 uncontested seats in favor of the ruling party. Prior to that in 2008, during Left rule, the number was 2,362. However, the first time this ‘phenomenon’ became truly visible was in 2003. Prior to this, the uncontested seats were usually in triple digits.

Initially the then ruling CPI-M government tried to defend this ‘phenomenon’ of uncontested seats on the same lines as O’Brien and other TMC leaders are doing today. “Due to the exceptionally better performances in rural areas by the LF (Communists), specially under ‘improved’ Left Front rule, the opposition parties have failed to motivate their cadres and activists to contest the panchayat election,” said Biman Bose, chairman of the Left Front and a member of the CPI-M Politburo.

In what seemed like a face saving exercise, 60,000 nomination papers were filed on the last day of nominations. Many claim 80% of these candidates were dummies put up by the CPI-M to give an illusion of democracy.

In 2018, there were no attempts to even create an illusion. This is a battle for political survival that every political party in the state is desperate to win.