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West Bengal panchayats: going down the drain?

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: July 2, 2013, 10:41 AM IST
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The tug-of-war between the West Bengal government and the State Election Commission regarding deployment of security forces has now moved beyond the state and in the domain of the Supreme Court. The decision of the Supreme Court spelt out on June 28, very much in favour of the State Election Commission, has finally settled the dispute and hopefully we shall see elections taking place in the panchayats of the state. But would the Panchayati Raj in the state continue to be one of the best in the country or are we seeing a sharp decline of the institution?

West Bengal has by now acquired a reputation of a state where there is very little industry, where human development is mediocre and in general a state where nothing seems to work. Part of this image surely is not borne by facts but the facts are not very impressive either. More importantly, image does matter and "Bengal Leads" kind of campaign featuring Shah Rukh Khan notwithstanding, the image of a state where nothing is going right is difficult to deny. No industry, chit fund scam, huge unemployment, farmer suicides, rape and violence against women, attack of hoodlums in Presidency University - all these add up to a very sorry picture indeed. Till now, there was one exception - the Panchayati Raj institutions of the state. As per the Ministry of Panchayati Raj's own assessment, the Panchayati Raj institutions of the state are among the best in the country. The state as a whole as well as individual panchayats has won several awards from Government of India. This does not mean that there is no room for improvement but certainly there were enough reasons for the people of the state to feel proud of the institution. The enthusiasm that is generated around the panchayat polls show that it has now become the nerve centre of the rural society.

Left Front and Panchayats in West Bengal

It is well-known that when Left Front came to power in 1977, they initiated the election to the panchayats in the state in 1978, long before the 73rd amendment of the Indian Constitution in 1994, which made panchayats mandatory across the country except some states in the northeast. Scholars have extensively studied the panchayats in West Bengal under Left rule and it is not possible to go into an elaborate discussion on this [for a review of literature see]. However one can briefly say that West Bengal evolved a form of party-based Panchayati Raj in the state. Though the panchayats were never out of the control of the party, and this had serious consequences, the panchayats were able to make a significant difference in the lives of the poor people of the rural areas. The funds that came to the panchayats of the state more or less went to the poor and not to the rural rich. It is likely that in some cases the benefits went more to the poor who supported the Left rather than other parties but nonetheless the benefits did go to the poor. Left Front in West Bengal however did not undertake the kind of radical decentralisation that the Left in Kerala did and gave limited powers to the panchayats to function on their own. This has been the most significant criticism by activists against the Left Front's policy in West Bengal regarding the panchayats. When Left Front was voted out of power in 2011, it was expected that the new regime would bring in the kind of decentralisation of powers that has been envisaged in the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution. It is also true that the Left Front was not able to reduce the development gap between the prosperous districts and the poorer districts of the state. It was also expected that the new regime would look into such matters.

"Paribartan" and Panchayats in West Bengal

After coming to power in 2011, it would have made lot of sense for the new regime to spend significant energy on the development of the panchayats and working out a new Panchayat policy. After all, it was the rural voter who overwhelmingly brought TMC into power and therefore rural development and empowerment through the panchayats should have been the highest priority of the ruling party even from the perspective of consolidating its power in the state. Yet, this is precisely what was not done. Firstly, an inexperienced newcomer was put in charge of the Department of Panchayati Raj and rural development and this resulted in sharp drop of performance across the state. After six or seven months, the minister was removed and this time a veteran politician, Subrata Mukherjee, was made the minister. However, both the minister and the secretary of the department remained part-timers as they had the charge of another department as well. Mukherjee, who was the young minister of the Congress government in 1973 which passed the Panchayat Act of the State, unfortunately did not come up with a new policy or any new scheme regarding the panchayats of the state. The World Bank project started during the Left Front period was continued and some emphasis was made on better implementation of MGNREGS but no comprehensive policy announcement was made. Some disturbing trends were also seen - powers were taken away from three zilla parishads on flimsy grounds and the sometimes the Zilla Parishad presidents of the opposition party were not even invited when the chief minister visited a district, a breach of protocol.

The absurdity of the fight with State Election Commission

The fight with the State Election Commission that the new regime entered into had all the ingredients of an absurd drama. TMC is even today likely to win most of the seats in the elections; it certainly was the case six months back when the tussle started. The ruling party, perhaps not aware of the constitutional provisions, tried to hold the election earlier than the scheduled date hoping this will complete its control over the state. They, however, were told by the State Election Commission that under the Constitution it is not possible for a state government to dismiss the PRI bodies as they are a separate constitutional body in their own right. This was followed by a completely unnecessary fight over dates of the election and the modalities of the election. A party that is likely to win the election need not have interfered in the conduct of the election by the State Election Commission. If the party was likely to lose heavily then only it made sense for the ruling party to enter into a battle with the State Election Commission, although that is not desirable. Here there was no such threat - all pundits agree that TMC would have won most of the seats if election would have been held on time and if the State Election Commission would have conducted the election according to their rules and regulations. Thus it made lot of sense to simply allow the SEC to conduct the election as it wants to. This would have improved the image of the state government as well. Instead the new regime entered into an ego battle to determine who is superior to whom and matters were dragged to the High Court and then finally to the Supreme Court.

Growing Lumpenisation of Rural Bengal

Going by the data available regarding violence during filing of nomination papers, it is clear that the threat of massive violence during the election that the SEC has been insisting on is a valid one. At least nine persons have died and about 700 complaints have been lodged. In one district, Hoogly, more than 30 per cent of the seats have gone uncontested. Needless to say they have mostly gone to the ruling party. This again is not a new phenomenon and such violence and election without contestation was seen in 2003 and 2008 elections as well. What are interesting are the areas from where violence by hoodlums was reported earlier. The same are again reporting such violence. The difference, however, is that the hoodlums have changed their political colour. This confirms what many of my friends in the districts have told me recently - the hoodlums are now in many parts of the state controlling the political parties and therefore rural politics. If you add the violence that happened during the Panchayat election with the ongoing spate of violence against women in different parts of the state, you will get a disturbing picture of growing control of the hoodlums over the state. Such hoodlums did exist during Left rule but their strength now seems to be increasing rather than going down which was the popular expectation from "Paribartan".
First Published: July 2, 2013, 10:41 AM IST