| Legacy of fear
If the downslide in the rural economy has created a problem for the ruling Marxists, they must also take the blame for reducing the panchayats to yet another battleground for power politics. They were meant to deepen democracy and decentralize governance. Instead, the panchayats have become centres for distribution of small money, odd jobs, contracts and sundry other favours to consolidate power bases. This is very different from the promise of people power with which elected panchayats began in West Bengal.
This explains why the people’s enthusiasm for panchayats is markedly on the decline, as was evident during a visit to parts of Birbhum, Bankura and West Midnapore. It is not that the poor people are disillusioned with the panchayati raj — they still need it for most things that mattered in their daily lives. But they seem to be strangely alienated from the panchayat work. The panchayat pradhan may be a neighbour in the next mud hut; but once elected to the office, it is a kind of us-versus-them between the people and the elected members.
This distancing of the people from the panchayats is why meetings of the gram sabha and the gram sansad rarely have quorums even after they were made mandatory in an amendment to the Panchayat Act in 2001. This is why the panchayat bodies get away with not submitting accounts or utilization certificates year after year. With declining people’s involvement, it becomes easier for corrupt pradhans to carry on, if they enjoy the confidence of the majority party.
As the party controlling an overwhelming majority of the panchayats and also as the party ruling the state, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is naturally the biggest villain. But the malaise has spread to all political parties. Wherever they rule the roost, the Trinamool Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress try to run the panchayats as their fiefdoms, riding roughshod on both the opposition and the people. They may still do some good work — in fact, many panchayats do — but the problem is that they do not think it necessary to involve the people in decision-making. The earlier rural strain — “The government knows best” — has been replaced by a new one, “The party (or the pradhan) knows best.”
Some analysts argue that this happens when power is transferred to the people without training or equipping them to exercise it. How would a poor fisherman, a marginal farmer or a landless wage labourer understand anything of office if he or she is elected pradhan' Such a pradhan can only become the rubber stamp of the local party boss. This is not necessarily a valid argument — the villagers, even if uneducated, can be shrewd realists and know their simple necessities well. As for their administrative inabilities or inexperience, the government-appointed assistants are supposed to help them out in going by the rule book.
The real problem is not the simple villager-turned-pradhan, but the cynical politicization of the institution. It is naïve to expect the panchayats to be apolitical. Only the last Gandhian in West Bengal politics, the former chief minister, Prafulla Chandra Sen, had talked of “partyless democracy” in the panchayats. It was as unreal an idea as his other thesis that the villages were idylls of peace and social harmony until the Marxist marauders destroyed them for ever. The fact is that the villages always were hotbeds of economic and social conflicts, which the coming of the panchayat politics only sharpened.
This backdrop of party politics helps make sense of the ruthless and violence-scarred campaign for the coming panchayat polls. Contrary to popular misconceptions, even in the first panchayat polls in 1978, the opposition did not give up without a fight. But, as the Marxists’ domination of the panchayats increased along with the people’s frustrations, the opposition challenge too gathered steam. This is evident from the left’s declining support in the rural areas from an average 65 per cent in 1983 to about 52 per cent in 1998.
Two trends mark the political equations of this election. The anger at the CPI(M)’s brute majoritarianism has played havoc with the Left Front’s unity moves. This is not the first time that the Revolutionary Socialist Party or the Forward Bloc has raised its banner of revolt. In 1983, the RSP openly called the CPI(M) “social fascists” and raved at the latter’s hegemonistic attitude to panchayats. But this time, both the RSP, the Forward Bloc and, to a smaller extent, the Communist Party of India have thrown the gauntlet at the Marxists.
In some cases, as in the Bolpur block in Birbhum or in South 24 Parganas, the RSP, more than the CPI(M), broke away from the left’s seat-sharing formula. But the fact that it dared to take on the Marxists shows the extent of the smaller partners’ frustrations with the big brother and their own aspiration to grab as much of panchayat power as possible. The result is that the Left Front partners are fighting among themselves for a much larger number of seats than the 4,000 in 1998.
The other significant development of this election is the opposition’s success in working out the mahajot (grand alliance) against the CPI(M) in far larger areas than ever before. For almost 10,000 panchayat seats there would be straight contests between the left and the united opposition’s candidates. The principal opposition alliance of the Trinamool Congress and the BJP has taken in any party — from the Jharkhand Party and the Maoist Communist Centre in Bankura, Birbhum and West Midnapore to the Congress in Nadia, the Party for Democratic Socialism in South 24 Parganas to deserters from the left ranks across the state — under the anti-CPI(M) alliance.
Even if this show of opposition unity cannot be repeated in the assembly or parliamentary elections because of the great divide between the BJP and the Congress in national politics, the groundswell of such a force can redraw the political contours of the state. It may not happen in these elections, but as and when it does, it may shake the ground beneath the Marxists’ feet. How the CPI(M) faces the mahajot challenge in the rural polls could show how it will do so in more decisive elections.
The next big battle comes in the Lok Sabha elections next year and the panchayat polls are crucial to decide who holds how much of the rural space when the next round comes. That is why even after the CPI(M) took over nearly 6,000 seats without contests, thanks to a combination of their terror tactics and the opposition’s organizational weaknesses, the fight is getting bloodier as the polling day approaches.
And the blood is on every leader’s hands. If the Marxists are using terror to survive and succeed, they are also paying heavily for it. Of the 15 people killed in poll violence this time, 12 are CPI(M) members or supporters who fell to attacks by the Congress or the Trinamool Congress. With the police and the administration in their control, the Marxists’ capacity for violence is infinitely greater. But their opponents could be just as vicious and violent.