By Ashis Biswas
KOLKATA: So far as the outbreak of violence in West Bengal prior to the panchayat polls is concerned, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is apparently unable to exercise a total control on proceedings. Given the TMC’s overwhelming dominance at all levels of political activity, the spirited response from even a disjointed opposition has surprised observers.
Opposition candidates and workers from Coochbehar to South 24 Parganas were initially swept off their feet by hordes of armed TMC supporters, as their nominees tried to file nomination papers. A BJP aspirant was killed, while a veteran CPI(M) leader, a former MP, escaped with a head injury, on the opening day of the campaign. Scores of people were hurt, some seriously, while some houses were attacked and vehicles and bikes damaged in several districts. With the state police staying inactive, armed TMC activists had a field day.
They certainly succeeded in scaring off most opposition candidates from reaching the BD offices in some areas. Said CPI(M) Politburo member Biman Bose, ’I have never seen such levels of violence, which makes it difficult for parties to announce their candidates for a panchayat election in Bengal at any time. This must be a record.’ The police made over 200 arrests, mostly opposition workers, by way of taking action.
But the beleaguered opposition, contrary to TMC expectations, has regrouped and started hitting back wherever possible. Its resistance, mainly spearheaded by the BJP, was restricted to pockets in Bankura, Purulia and Burdwan districts. With Bengal police remaining somnolent when not arresting or beating up opposition workers, this was inevitable. As an observer put it, ‘ Unlike what had happened in 2013 when the TMC swept everything before it in the panchayat polls, this time the opposition is going through the motions of a fight.’
Interestingly, even this show of defiance, pathetically inadequate in the face of planned onslaught by armed TMC mobs, was enough to worry some ruling party leaders. They were not prepared even for any resistance at all; such has been their unchallenged dominance all over the state since the 2011 Assembly polls.
As the BJP responded to the TMC-sponsored violence with some of its own, using tribal supporters carrying bows and arrows at one place, the larger message galvanised the opposition parties. The Congress fought back rampaging TMC supporters at Murshidabad. CPI(M) state secretary Suryakanta Mishra tried to rev up the flagging morale using more aggressive rhetoric than usual, as left workers came out in larger numbers in Midnapore and elsewhere.
The TMC’s go-for-broke offensive had the unexpected and undesired outcome of uniting the opposition at two levels. At the ground level, grassroots level workers in south Bengal districts were putting up a joint anti-TMC front, without reference to their party headquarters — a not uncommon practice adopted at the panchayat level. Secondly, when it came to seeking legal or administrative remedies against the heavy-handed tactics of the state officials and the ruling party, opposition parties demanded that central forces be used to maintain peace and order on polling days and before. The BJP, the INC and the Left Front (LF) spoke in one voice.
Meanwhile, INC state president Adhir Choudhury MP fighting a last ditch battle in Murshidabad, secured a Calcutta High Court order directing the state Government to file an affidavit on what steps it had taken to ensure free and fair polling and to maintain peace and harmony. The next hearing would be on April 20. The court also ordered all SPs to ensure that those willing to contest were able to file their nominations in peace.
The BJP filed a suit in the Supreme Court in view of the prolonged ceasework by lawyers in Bengal protesting against the congestion of pending cases. Both parties pressed the state to declare what steps it had taken to prevent the outbreaks of mass violence and called for the deployment of central forces immediately.
State Governor K.N. Tripathy sought a report on the situation from senior government officials and urged upon the State Election Commissioner to call for central forces to prevent further deterioration in the law and order situation.
No wonder TMC leaders, facing the heat, hit out strongly against the Governor, criticising his ‘over eagerness ‘and ‘reliance on half truths fed by the opposition.’ They dismissed allegations of TMC-sponsored violence as’ exaggeration.’ Chief minister Mamata Banerjee temporarily halted her efforts to hammer out a comprehensive anti-BJP Front, cancelling a scheduled visit to Chennai.
Adding to the TMC”s worries, the undercurrent of dissidence in the party ranks has turned into an open torrent. In addition to attacking opposition workers, rival TMC factions, obviously beyond party control, continue to attack, maim or kill their own colleagues and leaders, as the fight to file nominations gets fiercer. Choudhury hit the nail on the head when he said that the mad scramble in the ruling party for tickets was akin to’ a hoard of violent starving people fighting for their lives over scraps! ‘ .
TMC leader Partha Chatterjee claimed that more candidates from the opposition had filed their nomination for the Zilah Parishad than the TMC. This showed that everything was proceeding normally. How else could so many opposition candidates announce their candidature also at the gram panchayat and the panchayat samiti levels, he asked. He ruled out the need for any central forces to maintain law and order in Bengal.
The TMC, on the strength of its rural development work, which has been regularly overseen by the Chief Minister over the past few months, is confident of sweeping the polls. The party is certainly better poised than the opposition in terms of its road building, pond reclamation, water supply and social welfare projects.
However, inner party factionalism and the rapid growth of the BJP as second biggest party in the state are major worries. The TMC was also caught by surprise by both the INC and the BJP seeking legal remedies from the High Court and the Supreme Court so early in the campaign.
Both Mishra and BJP president Dilip Ghosh ridiculed Chatterjee pointing out that there were four or five major opposition parties as well as small groups within the opposition as opposed to the TMC in Bengal. Naturally, the number of nominees would be more from the opposition.
For the record, the panchayat polls would be held on May 1, 3 and 5 in Bengal. The first phase will see polling in 12 districts and 39,798 polling stations would be set up. On the second day two districts would go to polls, while 7,905 booths would be organised and on the final day, in the six north Bengal districts, 10.764 booths would be opened.
The first phase would require the services over 100,000 policemen. The state force is nearly 45.000 strong with the rest to be taken from the Kolkata city and other forces. (IPA Service)
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