As West Bengal gears up for the panchayat elections to be held in the middle of next year, it is already being speculated whether the opposition parties will be successful in forging an alliance to challenge the hegemony of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the state. Will the CPI(M) benefit from a divided opposition yet again despite declining levels of popularity in the villages' Whatever the result, the stage seems set for a keen contest.
Most political parties have already begun to gear up their organizational machinery. One step ahead of the others, the CPI(M) has already begun holding meetings across the state to shortlist candidates as well as to chalk out an election strategy. Not to be outdone, the Trinamool Congress had discussions on the preparations for the polls in its state committee meeting in November and has decided to hold a rally in Calcutta in January to motivate its rank and file.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has reorganized its state unit and its new party chief, Tathagata Roy, has called for the broadest possible anti-left forum in the elections. The state Congress leadership has, however, said that the party will contest the polls on its own, without allying with either the Trinamool Congress or the BJP.
At present, the CPI(M) controls all district-based panchayat bodies in the state. Though the state government takes great pride in the fact that panchayat polls have been held regularly every five years since 1978, corruption and nepotism have greatly impaired the functioning of the local bodies. In this connection, the former chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, has warned the party that “greed has taken a toll on some of our party men”. But political observers dismiss Basu’s move saying it was meant to address the growing discontent of the people with the way CPI(M)-ruled bodies functioned.
The polls will also prove to be a crucial test for Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress will hope to overcome its poor showing in the 2001 assembly polls. This time however Banerjee’s party seems in no mood to ally with the Congress. The BJP’s Tathagata Roy, on the other hand, is quite enthusiastic about allying with the Trinamool Congress. But Banerjee is adamant that her differences with the National Democratic Alliance will have to be resolved before she considers an alliance with the state BJP.
The BJP, which did not win a single seat in last year’s assembly elections, is eager to bring Banerjee back into the NDA fold since it knows that it stands little chance in the polls otherwise. In fact the replacement of Tapan Sikdar, a known Banerjee-baiter, with Roy as state unit chief, was designed to mollify the Trinamool Congress. If the Trinamool Congress and the BJP do unite, then there will be a triangular fight in the panchayat elections between the dominating Left Front, the Trinamool Congress-BJP combine, and the Congress.
With the elections only six months away, it is perhaps inevitable that political violence too is on the rise in the state. Inter-party rivalry has already resulted in the murder of 20 political workers in the past few months. This is especially common in the villages, point out political observers, since all parties try to expand their spheres of influence at this time.
West Bengal has led the other states in the devolution of economic power to local bodies; a major portion of the state budget is allotted to the panchayats. Such a huge inflow of cash to the local bodies has naturally resulted in corruption. Also, the partial land reforms affected by the state seem to have lost much of their shine. Rural poverty is on the rise, partly the result of the falling prices of agricultural produce. Despite all this, the CPI(M) continues to claim confidently that there is no alternative to the Left Front in Bengal. Now it remains to be seen whether its confidence will be borne out by the results of the panchayat elections.