Jirai Sheikh, a frail man in his late thirties, returned home last week after four years.
Sheikh had ran away from Bhandipura village in Mangolekote, 30 km from the town, after he mobilised people against the CPI(M)'s strong arm tactics before the 2008 panchayat elections.
"CPI(M) leaders threatened to kill me," he says. Sheikh's return doesn't mean normalcy in his family.
"Nobody in the village is allowed to speak to us," his ailing mother sobbed. Following a diktat from the party, his wife deserted Sheikh.
His tormentors, CPI(M) leaders Wasim Ansari and Pinto Sheikh, are on the run following police raids based on complaints from the Trinamool leaders.
However, West Bengal police acting on such complaints is not normal. "The local police station is merely an adjunct of the party unit," said an IPS officer who did not want to be named. The presence of election observers has prompted the action this time.
The party's control in rural areas is complete and even extends to matrimonial disputes. "A ration card, a birth certificate, to which school your kids should go – the party has a say in everything," says another officer.
Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkota has called this "party society". "Political parties in rural West Bengal have monopolised the social space," he writes. The takeover of the people's lives has happened with their "consent", he argues. Local feudal interests and the bureaucracy resisted the reforms that the Left brought and the answer was party society. "For the rural poor, party society was a favourable change of regime," says Bhattacharyya. "Lathi, guns and flags became the CPI(M)'s answer to the situation," says a local CPI(M) activist.
The party controlled the local clubs and panchayats, all secular institutions and of course the Durga Puja samitis.
The meltdown in party society began by the early 1990s. "The Left did not invest in education and health and our dropout rates and immunisation levels are among the worst in the country," says D Bandhopadhyaya, former IAS officer who oversaw the land reform measures of the first Left Front government (1977-82). Now a bitter critic of the party, he says party dominance has corrupted the social norms of Bengal. "Monetary corruption is bad, but the social decadence in the state is more worrying. The party has become the seat of all corruption and violence," he says.
"The LF should have done something for our children's education" is a common refrain even among those who praise the Front's land policy.
Restlessness grew against the CPI(M) through the 1990s and the last decade.
"Our response to this was not imaginative," admits a senior CPI(M) leader.
As consent for its hegemony waned, the party resorted to coercion. In 2003, 6,800 seats in local bodies — 11% of the total — went uncontested, an all time high, indicating the expanding coercive apparatus. But the industrialisation drive launched in 2006 caused an implosion in the party's rural fortresses. Even the selection of Singur as the site for the Tata
Nano plant was a retaliation, some say. "The CPI(M) lost the Singur seat twice and the party wanted to teach the people a lesson by acquiring their land," Bandopadhayay says.
However, in 2008, only 2,240 or 4.39% seats across the state were uncontested. The CPI(M) faced huge setbacks in local bodies, knocking at the roots of party society.
The stranglehold of the party has given way to anarchy. Mangolekote has witnessed nine murders – including that of CPI(M) zonal secretary Phalguni Mukherji – in the past three years. People fear more this season.