This was one election whose verdict was out before a single vote had been cast. There were thus victors, but no real victory because the opponents were terrorized out of the contests for 6,000-odd seats. Electoral wins have become routine for the ruling Left Front, thanks largely to a combination of ruthlessly manipulative practices and organizational might of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). But rarely has a victory tasted so bitter even to them. Not only the opposition parties but also its partners in the ruling alliance accused the Marxists of reducing the polls to a show of force. This is not to suggest that the Marxists would not have won a free and fair poll. In fact, the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had asked the obvious question about the pre-poll violence. He wondered why the CPI(M) had taken to terror tactics since it was a sure winner anyway. The point, therefore, is not the victory or the extent of it, but how it came about. The Marxists’ supremacy in the villages notwithstanding, a normal poll may not have seen a near-total decimation of the principal opposition alliance of the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Minor successes of the Congress in two districts may add a new dimension to opposition politics, but they are only footnotes to the rulers’ poll story.
Yet, there is no alternative to earnestly starting the rebuilding process. For what is at stake is not just panchayat power but the essence of democracy. The chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, may have consolidated his reign at the Writers’ Buildings, but the hollow victory may erode his moral right to governance. It will not be easy to regain the trust and confidence of the opposition which holds him, not unreasonably, primarily responsible for the electoral abuses. But that is precisely what he must aim at — restoring the opposition’s faith in the democratic process. A despairing opposition is as disastrous for a democracy as over-reaching rulers. The chief minister cannot afford to fail again, as he did during the poll, because that would mean a collapse of the political process and a dangerous drift to anarchy. The challenges ahead of him are more crucial than a flawed victory foretold.