West Bengal’s panchayat politics a study in how violence feeds power
In Barddhaman town, a tea seller is going about his usual business, bantering with customers while keeping track of their intricate demands on how the tea is to be prepared. In the middle of this ordered chaos, he answers our query, “Everything is peaceful here.” When pushed further, he responds nonchalantly, “Of course there is violence. Someone was just murdered 30 minutes from here.” Later on, he informs us, “The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has offered to give every household in the panchayat a motorbike if they win it. But they have to win the panchayat here. That’s not happening!” Such brazen displays of violence, power, and money are just background noise for most people during elections in West Bengal. Why is it so?
To understand the scale of local political violence in Bengal, it is important to understand the state’s political structure. A senior member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, in Barddhaman points out, “Bengal’s panchayats are not from the 73rd amendment, they are from the Panchayat Act.” While much of India began functional panchayat elections through the 73rd amendment in 1992, West Bengal held its first panchayat election in 1978 (implementing the 1973 Panchayat Act) after the CPM stormed to power in the state. While in principle, this allowed for a highly participatory system, in reality the panchayats became a powerful tool to implement party/state policy at the village level. The logic of the system implied that all citizen access to party and state would be channelled through the panchayat — effectively requiring total territorial control of West Bengal’s villages for large-scale policy implementation. While the CPM’s power has faded, the logic of local territorial control still exists under the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). Panchayat elections are not a measure of popularity; they are a measure of local power.
In order to understand how this principle played out in the recently concluded panchayat elections, a closer look at the data on gram panchayats (the lowest tier of India’s three-tiered panchayat system) is warranted. As has now been reported across media, the ruling TMC won 34% of gram panchayat seats uncontested — more than three times greater than the previous record of the CPM winning 11% of its seats uncontested in 2003. Presumably, this scale of uncontested victories (or booth capturing) is a function of local TMC cadres’ capacity to intimidate potential opposition candidates from filing their nomination papers. But there is extraordinary variation in the percentage of uncontested seats across West Bengal’s 19 districts — from a low of 1% in Purulia to a high of 88% in Birbhum.
This variation helps in making sense of the underlying reasons for booth capture in West Bengal’s panchayat elections. The fundamental question is whether the TMC is intimidating the opposition in areas in which it will have difficulty winning, or if it is doing so in places it is most likely to win as a show of power. If the TMC is capturing booths where it is likely to lose, then districts with low numbers of uncontested seats should be the places where the TMC wins a high number of seats that are being contested (because then there is no point in capturing booths) — yielding a negative correlation between the percentage of seats won by the TMC in contested seats and the percentage of uncontested seats in a district. On the other hand, if the TMC is capturing booths in a show of local power, then there should be a positive correlation between the percentage of seats won by the TMC in contested seats and the percentage of uncontested seats in a district (because it is most able to capture booths precisely where it will most easily win).
Using data from the State Election Commission (SEC) of West Bengal, these two competing hypotheses can be tested. The graph shows a discernible positive relationship between the percentage of uncontested seats and the percentage of seats won by the TMC in districts where the share of uncontested seats is less than 30%. This provides credible evidence that the scale of booth capturing is a proxy for the level of local control by the TMC.
So, how is the BJP building its cadre in this environment? An affable BJP district secretary with a permanent smile on his face explained, “We’re just trying to establish a base where our own cadre has been able to build some strength.” The seasoned district secretary — an upper caste, smalltime shopkeeper who had given two decades to the party — who clearly had the respect of his party colleagues. Energy and commitment to the cause of the BJP was evident amongst the party’s BJP cadres.
In Basanti, I met a BJP block president — a young man under the age of 30 — who had started his career out in the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the student organization associated with the CPM in its heyday. Like so many SFI alumni, he has moved over to the BJP and joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) recently. He says matter of factly, “This is our acid test. We know we can’t win, but if we do well, we will have cadres to fight in 2019.” He is not shy about how to build these cadres either, noting, “We benefit by sowing violence between Hindus and Muslims. Why shouldn’t we do it?” Another member of the block leadership in Basanti (who has refused to join the RSS) is clearly uncomfortable, whispering to me as he glances over to the block president, “We’ve never had Hindu-Muslim violence here before, but for these guys Muslims equal Pakistan.”
Most of the political operatives I met in the BJP understand that TMC is capturing booths as a show of force, to make people think twice about joining its cadres, while TMC operatives understand that the BJP is trying to grow by fomenting violence. Back with the affable BJP district secretary, over mishti doi and sweets, the conversation turns to how the BJP wins elections. He’s quite unimpressed with those who have switched sides from the CPM or Congress, “To be honest, we only got the `good’ people.” He turns serious, looks me directly in the eye and asks, “Are you a good person?”
Sensing that I’m uncomfortable, he continues, “I can tell you are. I’m not. I’m a very bad person.”
“Good people don’t win elections.”
(The author is Senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research)