Putting an end to the lingering uncertainty over Bengal’s panchayat elections, the state election commission announced that the rural body polls would take place on July 8. The counting for the single-phase polls is likely to take place on July 11. The five-year tenure of the panchayat bodies is set to expire on August 16.
The process of submission of nominations at offices of district magistrates and sub-divisional officers is scheduled to begin from Friday, June 9. While the last day for submission of nomination is June 15 (except on Sunday, June 11), the last day of withdrawal of nominations has been fixed on June 20.
The announcements were made on Wednesday afternoon by the state’s newly-appointed election commissioner, Rajiva Sinha, who seemed to have wasted no time in declaring the poll schedule since he took charge of the office earlier in the day after his appointment was confirmed by Governor CV Ananda Bose.
With the large scale violence and intimidation during the previous edition of the state’s rural polls in 2018 still fresh in public memory, questions, though, have been raised on whether the state election commission would have sufficient police force at its disposal for holding the polls in a single phase and ensuring free and fair elections at the same time.
“We have not taken a call on whether we would ask for central forces cover for these polls. We will decide that at a later stage. For now, we made the announcement of the poll schedule based on our talks with the state government. We are of the impression that the government has thought this through and we believe this could be done. We will deal with hiccups, if any, as and when we confront them,” Sinha, the former chief secretary of the state, said without clarifying whether the commission intends to hold the polls with state police cover only.
This year, the three-tier rural polls would be held for 63,229 seats in 3317 Gram Panchayats, 9730 seats for 341 Panchayat Samitis and 928 seats for 22 Zilla Parishads of the state. Over 5.67 crore electorates are expected to cast their votes across 61,636 polling stations. In Kalimpong and Darjeeling districts, where grassroots administration is carried out through the autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, the polls would be held only at the two upper tiers of Panchayat Samiti and Zilla Parishad.
What came as a sudden announcement from the commission, leaving prospective candidates a window of just six days to file nominations, the declared poll schedule is also likely to adversely affect ruling Trinamul Congress general secretary Abhishek Banerjee’s ongoing Naba Jowar mass outreach programme where the leader is trying to pinpoint candidates for his party based on grassroots feedback. Banerjee has spent 43 out of his scheduled 60-day campaign in the districts but is yet to cover parts of Nadia and both North and South 24 Parganas districts.
For the state’s ruling dispensation, the significance of the upcoming polls carries in its final opportunity to test waters in Bengal’s countryside, Trinamul’s most consistent vote bank, in the run up to the crucial general elections next year. The party has been fighting an uphill perception battle in the wake of the large-scale corruption allegations across different sectors of state administration which has already resulted in several of its top leaders finding themselves behind bars.
Despite its landslide victory in the 2021 state polls, a marked improvement over its performance in the previous edition of Lok Sabha elections where the BJP snatched 18 of the 42 seats, its recent humiliation in the Assembly by polls at Murshidabad’s Sagardighi, a rural constituency, in the hands of the Left-Congress combine reportedly ruffled feathers in the party’s top brass.
Factional feuds across various levels of Trinamul was also believed to be one of the reasons why Abhishek Banerjee conceived his mass outreach campaign across the state ahead of the rural polls.
For the opposition, the polls provide yet another opportunity to test their organization prowess and their ability to capitalize on anti-incumbency.
But it’s the apprehension of rampant political violence, which has bloodied the state with unwarranted consistency, that continues to remain the biggest challenge for chief minister Mamata Banerjee, especially during these polls. The BJP alleges that the TMC won 34 percent of panchayat seats in 2018 uncontested primarily on account of threats, intimidation and violence unleashed on prospective opposition candidates. Large-scale clashes, leading to some 25 deaths and many injuries were reported from across the state on the day of the polls itself and its immediate aftermath five years ago. It’s the re-run of that political culture that should keep the new state election commissioner at the edge of his seat.
“The panchayat polls will be free and fair this time,” Abhishek Banerjee has claimed on multiple occasions during his grassroots campaign over the last few weeks. It remains to be seen if the election commission keeps its faith in the state police to maintain peace or whether it reaches out to central armed forces to get the job done.