Panchayat elections may never have been totally bucolic affairs, but by the goings-on in Punjab and West Bengal, one gathers that the polls have assumed a new kind of significance. In Punjab, as the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) rakes up an impressive win, it will be difficult to forget the ruckus that went on before the elections between the SAD and the BJP, fighting supposedly together against a withering Congress. The fact that the Akalis were right about being ‘more representative’ of the rural vote in Punjab has provided their alliance partner, the BJP, with little space to air their ‘complaints’ about SAD partymen turning violent against members of the national party. That is one sticky business in the coalition government that still remains to be resolved, especially with municipal committee elections slated next month.
But if the Punjab panchayat elections show an uncomfortable alliance hanging in discomforting limbo, the situation in the ongoing and staggered West Bengal panchayat polls is more serious because of the open violence involved. However much West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee states that the polls have been ‘peaceful’ so far — mentioning in passing that there have been ‘stray incidents’ — the fact of the matter is that even at the level of panchayats, the ‘lumpen’ cadre-level violence between the ruling CPI(M) and other Left Front constituents, not to mention with opposition Trinamool Congress workers, has been more than visible. When eight people, including an infant, are killed, it is difficult to consider things as ‘peaceful’.
What underlines the situation in ‘post-Nandigram’ West Bengal panchayat elections is the stand-off between the CRPF and the state government. The Centre is yet to be convinced of the rape charges levelled by local leaders in East Midnapore (where Nandigram lies) against the central security forces who are overlooking the polls. Such ugly spats make the polls even more sinister than it already is — especially when one considers that a large number of seats had been left unopposed against the CPI(M) even before the first vote was cast. So going by what one witnesses, panchayat elections, both in Punjab and in West Bengal, seem to have gained in importance, but for the wrong reasons, with the wrong effects.