Poll violence is nothing new in West Bengal but the current spate of killings and clashes in the much-publicised panchayat elections is unprecedented. Polls have been held in three of the five phases and nine lives have already been lost.
The ruling Trinamool Congress terrorised the rural areas to such an extent that it has won almost 10% of the gram panchayat seats without a contest.
In most cases, the opposition CPI(M) and to a smaller extent the Congress have accused the ruling party of perpetrating the violence. Prominent Trinamool leaders, including district presidents and MPs, are openly exhorting their followers to thrash and kill members of opposition parties and destroy and set fire to their homes.
“It is clear that the ruling party is losing confidence in the people and in their own partymen,” said Pradip Bhattacharya, West Bengal Congress chief and Rajya Sabha MP.
Minority community leader Tawha Siddiqui shared the perception: “People had voted them (Trinamool) in to rule Bengal for at least 10 years. But it is the misfortune of the electorate that they are becoming increasingly eager to be voted out after five.”
Leader of the opposition Surya Kanta Misra of the CPI(M) was more critical. “The Trinamool Congress has imposed a reign of terror across the state and our leaders and cadres are failing to return home. They have ceased all democratic rights in those areas,” he said.
The Trinamool predictably rubbished Misra’s allegation. Senior party leader and panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee said the CPI(M) leaders and cadres fled their villages because of public hatred towards them.
“Only the branded harmads -- armed CPI(M) cadres -- are living away from home. They kept the locals terrorised for so long that they know the people will now thrash them if they return home,” Mukherjee said.
A visit to districts around Kolkata reveals the fear among the CPI(M) cadres. Sample this: The CPI(M) could not field candidates in about 20% of the seats in Barasat II block in North 24 Parganas district, which is a 90-minute drive from Kolkata. Nearly half of those who managed to file nominations had no agent in the polling booths.
All party offices except one remain closed. About 400 leaders and cadres fled their homes and are living in towns and party offices in other parts of the district.
Majid Ali, better known as Majid Master, once ruled the area with an iron hand. A member of the CPI(M)’s North 24 Parganas district secretariat, the 70-year-old retired schoolteacher served twice as the sabhapati of Barasat II block and once as a member of the zilla parishad. He, along with 400 leaders and cadres in this block, had to leave home within days of the Mamata Banerjee government coming to power in May 2011.
In places like Jangipara and Dhaniakhali in Hooghly district and Khejuri and Nandigram in East Midnapore district, each and every CPI(M) office stands like a haunted house. All key leaders and cadres have fled to nearby towns. Some have rented houses while some are living in party offices. A section of their supporters have managed to stay on in their villages after paying hefty ‘fines’.