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CM keen to advance solo test

Calcutta, July 21: Mamata Banerjee today signalled the possibility of advancing the panchayat polls, proposing a post-Puja contest that suggests her eagerness to tap her reservoir of support before anti-incumbency depletes it.

Against the backdrop of political setbacks at the national level, the chief minister made it clear she would use the rural polls to gauge Trinamul’s own vote base without the Congress prop.

“In Bengal, Trinamul will fight the elections alone, bring about change and build a new Bengal,” she thundered at her party’s martyrs’ day meeting at the city centre, hitting out at a section of state Congress leaders who have been critical of her.

The July 21 rally is an annual feature on Trinamul’s roster of events to commemorate the death of 13 Youth Congress activists in police firing in 1993.

A key component of the panchayat poll preparation, Mamata stressed in unequivocal terms, has to be the party’s ability to contest without tie-ups. She asked the gathering — estimates ranged from 10 lakh by Trinamul leaders to around 6 lakh by police — to shout aloud that Trinamul workers were sure about winning elections without alliances.

However, she kept the big picture in mind. “There is an alliance in Delhi; it is still there and will remain provided we continue getting respect,” Mamata said, trying to make a distinction between the Congress in Delhi and its unit in Bengal.

Trinamul’s announcement did not come as a surprise to state Congress leaders. Bengal Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya said party workers were prepared to fight the rural polls alone.

Trinamul had fought the 2008 rural polls and the 2010 civic elections alone, while tying up with the Congress for the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and 2011 Assembly elections. Trinamul’s panchayat poll performance is expected to set the parameters within which any alliance talks will be held for the 2014 general election.

Mamata did not mention any specific date for the panchayat polls, which would have been due close to the middle of next year. Trinamul sources said she had been toying with the idea of early polls for some time as she is keen to increase her tally of rural bodies, which still have a significant Left presence across the state.

“Panchayats are the place to work in. I urge all of you to work hard to win the elections, which we shall hold after the Pujas. We’ll have to win the panchayat elections to deliver development to rural Bengal,” Mamata said.

She added that the process of paribartan (change) would be complete after victory in the rural polls.

A senior state government official, however, cited procedural problems with advancing the rural polls.

“The panchayats’ term lasts till May 2013. Rural bodies elected before that cannot take charge till May 2013 unless the government amends Bengal’s 1973 panchayat act,” the official said. Amendments to the act enabling dissolution of panchayats before their term could face legal scrutiny.

“This government has the expertise to dissolve and dismantle institutions. Let’s see what it does with the panchayats now,” leader of the Opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra said sarcastically.

Another problem is that the next rural polls will have to introduce OBC reservation, and the required seat delimitation — which sources said could take five to six months — cannot start till the ongoing central caste census yields its data.

“This process cannot be fast-tracked,” a retired government official said.

Mamata is yet to achieve some of her governance targets, such as industrialisation and law-and-order improvement, and some of her political decisions such as opposing FDI in retail have disappointed sections of people. However, the politician in Mamata knows that her appeal among the common voters far outweighs the combined impact of these negative factors.

Today, she took care to mention all the achievements of her 14-month-old government, departing from her usual style to consult written notes. She read out numbers — relating to growth in the state domestic product and investment proposals — trying to arm supporters with data to reach out to voters.

Mamata reaffirmed that the future of her party’s relations with the Centre would depend on Delhi’s response to Bengal’s biggest demand: a three-year moratorium on interest payment and part of the principal of debts.

“We have repeatedly told the Centre to give us relief from the burden of past debts, which the Left Front government had incurred. We shall wait for some more time but if nothing is done, I will take all my MPs and MLAs to the Prime Minister,” she said, repeating an earlier warning.