The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Collective responsibility

What is actually happening in rural West Bengal in the course of the panchayat polls' We are getting alarming reports of violence pouring out of our villages almost everyday, carrying ghastly details of alleged threats, torture, even murder and rape committed mainly by the politically powerful entities. It has been asserted by the opposition parties that their candidates were stopped from filing nomination for as many as ten thousand seats, allowing the ruling coalition a virtually free run in these areas. Even some constituents of the Left Front have charged the dominant partner of using its muscles to ward off any possible challenge to its supremacy. In the vernacular press, the range of such allegations has reached sensational heights; the media, it would appear, is waging a moral — if unequal — battle against some form of an absolutist regime.

True, in the thick of an electoral battle exaggerations and suppression of facts are not new. It is impossible at the moment to ascertain the veracity of many of these charges. No hard data can be compiled immediately that would enable us to compare the number — and especially the kind — of seats going uncontested this year with the figures of the previous elections. Similarly, a detailed list of seats where the partners of the ruling front are fighting each other in violation of the agreed principles of seat allocation and who is to be blamed in most cases for such violations is yet to be established. Also, the circumstances and the actual scenario leading to such acts of violence will require a closer scrutiny than available in the initial — and somewhat erratic — newspaper and television reports. Amidst all this, there’s no denying that what is new in the panchayat polls this time round is the high decibel of publicity it is getting from all quarters, local and national.

For someone who has been observing the trajectory of the panchayats in the state, this is however hardly surprising. Once mere institutions to carry out land reforms by way of putting organized pressure on the landed classes and the lower rung of bureaucracy, panchayats soon turned into some form of a defining mechanism for the village localities. From governing the localities at the behest of the higher levels of authority, there was a clear tendency of becoming a government by the locality itself. Not that everyone was invited, not that all forms of exclusion based on caste, class, gender, or political affiliations were erased, but in this new mode of deciding what is good and bad, and what is needed and dispensable for the village, the panchayat assumed a centrality not just in allocating Central and state funds and implementing employment generating programmes. There is much more. Its centrality came from its largely representative character, collective decision-making, intervention in all kinds of village problems, and offering of the most proximate legal-institutional edifice that simultaneously kept itself open to the local sensibilities of entitlement. This gave the panchayat a significant ethical potency. Those who dealt endlessly in corruption in the panchayat — though with the right intentions — seldom appreciated that many such corruptions were viewed significantly in a different light in particular villages.

Let me give two examples. A recent survey asked rural respondents if they thought the partisan disbursement of funds (shwajanposhan) by the panchayat functionaries was bad. A majority said it wasn’t. Why' Because it is immoral not to look after your own people. Second, during a fieldwork I asked villagers why they did not react despite knowing that money meant for repairing the arterial village road has been siphoned off by the panchayat' Why should they, I was asked in return, when they knew that the money would after all be spent for a “bhalo kaaj’ (desirable purpose) in the village itself'

This is not a point in cultural relativism, of a differential menu of priorities that are incommensurable with the rational mindsets of the policy-makers at the top. Rather, these are instances of a situational thinking about how best the local government should work. You change the location, and any strictly uniform notion of good governance seems hollow.

What appears striking in West Bengal is the fusion of the party and the government at the local level. Whether it is the party that has made a deft instrumental use of the panchayat or whether the panchayat owes much of its success to the organizational qualities of a well-knit party can be a debating point. But the most pressing effect of this fusion is the growth of an imagination of local governance with the organizational grid of mainly the Communist Party of India (Marxist) set permanently at the centre. Of course there are non-CPI(M) village panchayat bodies, as well as other left and non-left political parties and their mass organizations, but the presence of the party is so overwhelming, especially as one climbs up the panchayat hierarchy, that every action that requires mediation by the panchayat becomes unlikely to succeed unless it is routed at some level through this partisan machinery. This can perhaps be taken as a vital clue to the Left Front’s incredibly long spell in power which others have envied but scarcely been able — for different reasons — to emulate.

Such a massive network of political and administrative resources indeed provides the dominant partner in the coalition with a strong and enduring foundation. Paradoxically, however, it also simultaneously releases an unruly element in its command and control structures. Each village, each locality, with the aid of governmental institutions associated with it, generates locally specific problems that calls for some degree of locally specific solutions. There cannot be a single way to conduct the affairs of the party anymore; everyday issues need pragmatic immediate action. This in turn makes it necessary for local party leaders to have a good deal of political reflex, ability to make imaginative interventions and to act independently within the local government. The final test of their conduct, they are categorically reminded, is in the electoral outcome. So the violence we are witnessing is perhaps not so much because the CPI(M) is losing its grip over its local units, as has been widely suggested in the media. The grip, in fact, is predicated on an allowance of some unencumbered manoeuvrings at the distant, local levels. But the problem is that winning elections has become the litmus test for the local leadership, the most important credential for its authority within the organization. So electoral battles, especially the local ones, are increasingly turning into a question of life and death.

In recent times, the panchayat is expected to play a new role. The situation at the ground level in rural West Bengal has undergone tremendous changes. Through the early Nineties the state has had unprecedented growth in the production of paddy, potato and certain other crops. Vast stretches of land have been brought under the cover of irrigation, wages for agricultural workers have gone up, and the general level and pattern of consumption of a vast segment of rural population, by all estimates, have grown and diversified. This has also been accompanied by a demand for the right prices, for enlarged markets, for sustainable agriculture, more efficient productive techniques and better use of inputs such as seeds, water, pesticides, fertilizers and so on.

Most of these issues require professional assistance such as scientific expertise, infrastructure such as roads, better modes of transportation. So the panchayat, which so far was pressed into harnessing localities, must now be equipped to transcend them. Both the recommendations of global consultants McKinsey and the new agricultural policies of the present government make strong cases for placing the state’s system of rural production within a globalized economy. Land, after the initial bout of distributive reforms, has ceased to be a major issue here; now the left is busy selling the idea of “precision farming” to get rid of the glut of overproduction of certain crops and to boost agro- processing.

So the stakes, by all means, are really high. Gone are the days when rural West Bengal portrayed a rather monochromatic image of hunger, indebtedness, landlessness, indignity and excruciating poverty. Despite its bad roads, dilapidated schools and badly equipped health centres, village Bengal is likely to turn soon into a destination for sizeable private investment, both global and local. From the CPI(M)’s point of view, it is best suited — given its organizational prowess — to invite these changes in the right measure. But are we to witness these promises of prosperity finding fulfilment in a manipulative ambience of incessant violence' Or will a more tolerant, reciprocal and dialogical relationship between contenders of political power prevail in the aftermath of the panchayat polls' Whatever happens, it will indeed add colour to the troubled intimacy between democracy and development in our part of the world.

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