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End of Left Era in West Bengal Panchayats, but what next?

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: August 22, 2013, 2:24 PM IST
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The war, camouflaged in liberal terms as an "election", is over and it is clear who has won it. The 2013 Panchayat Election in West Bengal has continued the trend that was set by the 2008 Panchayat election leading to the defeat of the Left Front in the Assembly Election of 2011. The Left Front era of Panchayati Raj in West Bengal which started with the election in 1978 has clearly now come to an end and even if the electoral fortunes of the Left Front is revived in the coming years, it is unlikely to reach the kind of hegemonic position that the Left enjoyed between 1978 and 2011.

First, let me briefly point out the statistical highlights of the 2013 election. Table 1 summarises the party-wise results of the 2013 election.

Party-wise Position in 2013 elections
Zilla Parishad (17)
Panchayat Samiti (329)
Gram Panchayats (3215)
Left Front
Source: West Bengal State Election Commission, newspapers

It is evident from the table above that although TMC and Congress have parted ways since the last Assembly Election, Left Front's decline has continued and it is down to only 2 Zilla Parishads from 13 in 2008. On the other hand the mirror opposite is the situation of TMC who has improved its tally from 2 Zilla Parishads in 2008 to 13 Zilla Parishads in 2013. Clearly the party which comes to power in the Assembly is able to dominate the Panchayat Elections.

Seats won by leading parties in 2008 and 2013
PRI body
Left Front
Left Front
Gram Panchayats
21780 (52.47)
6839 (16.47)
9379 (22.59)
15614 (31.99)
5495 (11.26)
25175 (51.58)
Panchayat Samiti
4894 (55.61)
1446 (16.43)
2019 (22.94)
2829 (30.61)
918 (9.93)
5306 (57.42)
Zilla Parishad
514 (68.62)
99 (13.21)

120 (16.02)
213 (25.81)
77 (9.33)
531 (64.36)
Source: West Bengal State Election Commission, newspapers

The decline of the left comes out in sharper focus if we compare the 2008 results with 2013 results in terms of percentage of seats won. At GP level Left Front is down from 52.47 per cent to 31.99 per cent, at the PS level it is down from 55.61 to 30.61 and the Zilla Parishad level Left Front has gone down from 70.99 per cent to 25.81 per cent. On the other hand TMC has increased its tally from 16.02 per cent to 64.36 per cent at the Zilla Parishad level, from 22.94 per cent to 57.42 per cent at the PS level and from 22.59 per cent to 51.58 per cent at the GP level. Unfortunately we do not have the voting percentage as yet with us and therefore are not able to compare voting percentage data.
In terms of districts, Left Front has been almost wiped out of several former bastions - West Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum and Bardhaman. It has done reasonably well in the South and North 24 Parganas. In Nadia it has improved its position and given TMC a tough fight.

An important feature of TMC's victory in 2013, one that is indicative of the swing of rural muscle power in its favour, is the number of uncontested seats won by the party. At the ZP level TMC has won all 15 uncontested seats, at the PS level it has won 877 out of 881 uncontested seats and at the Gram Panchayat level it has won 5298 out of 5376 uncontested seats. In Hoogly the percentage of seats won uncontested has been as high as thirty per cent.

Having pointed out the key facts and figures let me speculate briefly on why the Left Front is continuously declining and TMC is rising. I would emphasize the word "speculation" as a systematic field-study was not possible due to financial constraints. It is now quite clear that Left Front's much talked about "party machinery" was not as well-drilled and disciplined as it was imagined before 2008. In the absence of a strong opposition, Left Front had acquired an aura of invincibility. However it had started to rely on mercenary soldiers rather than disciplined cadres to maintain its grip over rural society. In order to please the mercenaries and their local bosses the Party head quarter overlooked many of their misdeeds, links with criminal elements and poor performance in development of backward districts like Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapur.

Once the tragedies at Singur and Nandigram opened the flood gates for the opposition under Mamata Banerjee, step by step the mercenaries have also deserted the Left Front and joined the present ruling party. Thus Left Front does not any more have the organizational strength to fight the rising new power. This is particularly evident in the way the Left is unable to retaliate when their party workers are killed or when their party offices are destroyed. Where the Left has managed to retain its organizational strength, such as Jalpaiguri, it has won but where its organizational strength has declined, such as neighbouring Cooch Behar, it has lost. The success of Jalpaiguri and the failure of Cooch Behar, cannot be explained in terms of other categories such as class, caste, language or religion.

The groups of mercenaries at the local level are now being wooed more successfully by TMC, which is not a strong cadre-based party. Thus Mamata Banerjee also overlooks many of the misdeeds of the mercenaries now serving the new party in power and provides various benefits to local clubs. Along with this one can point out that Mamata Government's decision of not to acquire land forcibly from poor peasants has a currency in the rural areas that is likely to pay dividends to her party for some time in the future even though it may make industrialization in the state nearly impossible. Mamata Banerjee also has much greater popularity at the moment than any of the Left leaders. She clearly has greater emotional connect with the rural population than any of the Left leaders who are more middle-class in appearance and speech.

In a paradoxical way therefore, very little has changed in rural Bengal even though the ruling party has changed. Mamata's Government has followed a status quo policy on land issues and has deferred the inevitable trauma of capitalist change under the present economic model of the country. Also we are not witnessing one class of rural society being replaced by another or certain caste-groups becoming more dominant than others. It is too early to say whether the older ruling elite of the Congress era is coming back to power or whether the gains of land reforms would be reversed or not. Nor are we witnessing any new ideological wave sweeping the countryside now that the hammer and sickle is no more in vogue. TMC is consciously trying to promote a Bengali regionalist ideology but it is doubtful whether that is sweeping people off their feet.

While these are some of the general reasons behind TMCs success there is an important regional variation in the western districts of Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapur. Here TMC and the central armed forces have successfully eliminated the Maoists who had earlier killed many Left Front cadres and considerably weakened the Left Front in these districts. Left Front also does not have much to show here in terms of development as these districts have remained poor over the years. In the battle between two groups of Marxists, TMC has reaped the benefits.

Now that the Left Front era in West Bengal Panchayats is over, the big question is what next? Are we going to see a new kind of Panchayati raj? Unfortunately, TMC is yet to announce a definite policy regarding the Panchayats. History has brought Mamata Banerjee's party to power. How History will judge the performance of the TMC era in West Bengal Panchayats remains to be seen.

A note on the Data

There is some confusion regarding the exact number of seats won by each party. I have tried to give the most accurate version on the basis of consultation with experts. However the overall trend is not going to vary even if there is minor change in the numbers.
First Published: August 22, 2013, 2:24 PM IST