The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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CPM-babus versus CM-babu versus Mamata

Calcutta, April 21: The challenge from Mamata Banerjee and her lost-and-found saffron ally is far easier by comparison. The real challenge that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee faces over the panchayat elections is from his own party.

As chief minister, it is his primary responsibility to ensure the rule of law and uphold democracy. But in so doing, he has to contend with an overreaching party that makes his task difficult.

This is why Bhattacharjee’s response to Mamata’s complaints over the rural polls has been significantly different from those of CPM state secretary Anil Biswas or Left Front chairman Biman Bose. Even before Mamata took her complaint to Delhi and prompted Union home minister L.K. Advani to talk to the chief minister, the latter had reacted to the Opposition cry of foul play over the nominations.

In a statement that was clearly aimed at overzealous comrades, the deputy Prime Minister warned that it was not “in the interest of healthy democracy” to forcibly prevent Opposition contenders from filing nominations. Politically, his thinly-veiled admonition to party strongmen was more significant than the assurance that the administration would take action to ensure a free and fair poll.

Obviously, Bhattacharjee cannot afford to shut his eyes on the CPM’s strongarm tactics in large parts of the state. Not only the Opposition, but some partners of the front have also accused the Marxists of terrorising them out of the poll battle. He cannot blandly say, like Biswas, that the Trinamul could not put up candidates for 20,000 of the 58,000 panchayat seats because they cannot find people willing to be the party’s nominees.

Biswas surely knows rural Bengal better than Mamata or most other Opposition leaders who visit the villages only during the elections. He cannot, therefore, believe his own argument. Precisely because of panchayat politics, village societies in Bengal today have deep divisions and conflicting interests. To claim that the Marxists have no critics in such a large number of areas is not even bad propaganda; it is an unabashed lie.

True, none of the Opposition parties matches the Marxists’ organisational machine. But to claim that for 20,000 seats they can find no villager critical of the CPM or willing to stand up against it is simply absurd. It is possible that given the organisational weaknesses of the Trinamul, the BJP, or the Congress, their candidates would have lost most of these contests. But if they have stayed away from the fights, it must have been primarily because of fear.

It is clear the Marxists have worked this terror machine in pockets of East Midnapore, Hooghly and Bankura, where it lost substantial ground to the Trinamul in both the panchayat and parliamentary elections in 1998. Obviously, the party leaders did not want to take any chances in these areas, most of which they subsequently retrieved, often by shedding much blood.

It is another matter that Mamata’s credibility has steadily eroded, particularly since the 2001 Assembly elections, because of her flip-flop politics. The limits to her ability to challenge the Left have been exposed. It is possible that the Trinamul, whose leaders rarely visit the villages except during elections, will do worse in the panchayat elections than in 1998 because she no longer inspires the hope that she did in 1997 when she broke away from the Congress.

The chief minister, by contrast, has consistently gained in both credibility and acceptability, despite occasional faux pas. It would be facile to expect him to antagonise the party. But the panchayat polls could be a test for him to try and put the party in its place, while he governs the state.

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