By Ashis Biswas
In Bengal, opposition parties did well not to crow about their legal victory against the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) over the conducting of the panchayat polls: the Calcutta High Court order snubbed the TMC and the state administration, but it was no more than a minor reprieve for the badly outgunned opposition in the larger battle to win control of the panchayat bodies.
In brief, the high court upheld the demand made by the state units of the Indian National Congress (INC), the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M ) and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), for an extension of time for filing nominations; rejected the TMC stand that the judiciary could not intervene in the panchayat polls once the election process was on; and directed the State Election Commission (SEC) to ensure that as per instructions of the Supreme Court, conditions prevailed for a free and fair poll.
This meant that the polling dates, scheduled for May 1, 3 and 5 had to be changed. State Election Commission (SEC) officials went into a huddle Friday night with administrative heads to finalise a fresh schedule.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the government’s leading counsel MP Kalyan Banerjee made a virtue out of necessity. Both claimed satisfaction over the 35-page court directive from single bench judge Subrata Talukdar. In the process they contradicted their earlier statements, wherein they had accused the opposition of delaying poll proceedings. Now the court order had clearly delayed the entire poll schedule, accepting the opposition’s version of lawlessness prevailing in the state.
But both Mamata and the lawyer-turned-MP opted to show their nonchalance. In fact, the lawyer, briefing the media after the government’s reverses, delivered a typical soap-box speaker’s speech in the HC’s premises which ended with loud cries of ‘Mamata Banerjee zindabad‘!
No TMC leader bothered to explain why all three of the TMC’s basic premises: first, the judiciary could not legally intervene in panchayat poll matters; second, all opposition claims of violence were false and therefore no extra time was needed for further nominations; and third, elections should be allowed to be held on schedule —- had been rejected by the High Court.
At this writing, details as to the rescheduling of polling days etc are not available. Officials admitted that drawing up a new schedule would involve considerable chopping and changing. Because of political compulsions, on May 1, it was decided there would be polling in 12 south Bengal districts, involving elections for nearly 36,000 gram (village) panchayat (SP) seats. Over 50.000 state and city policemen would be on duty, with at least one armed policeman for each of 57,000-plus polling stations.
But for May 3, only two Congress-dominated districts, Malda and Murshidabad, would have gone to polls, with no more than 6,000 or so GP seats. This meant that all polling booths would have been massively guarded by thousands and thousands of policemen, for no readily discernible reason! TMC insiders admitted that the unofficial objective was to make sure that ‘the goose of Cong MP and TMC’s bete noire Adhir Choudhury was cooked good and proper‘!
Now that the old schedule was no longer workable, it needed to be decided whether there would be a two-day or three-day polling schedule. Given the TMC”s desperation to avoid polling during the coming Ramadan month from Mid-May onwards, it seemed a two-day format would be unavoidable.
Still, in one sense the TMC was all but home and dry. According to SEC reports, the party candidates, having won 15,630 GP seats out of a total of 58,692 had already won nearly 27% seats uncontested, an all time record. The reason: no opposition candidate had been able to file their nomination, or had been forced to withdraw from the contest later. In 2003 and 2013, there were nearly 10% of GP seats which went uncontested.
It was no different at the other levels of the three tier contest. At Birbhum, the TMC has won 42 out of 42 seats in the new Zila Parishad. One BJP candidate, who tried to contest, was won over after ‘persuasion’ from local TMC cadres. At Kandi, Bharatpur and Barwan Panchayat Samiti polls, the TMC had respectively won 29, 36 and 36 seats, without anyone else filing nominations! All are in Murshidabad.
The standard TMC explanation for their massive wins? Says party Secretary Partha Chatterjee,’ Our narrative of comprehensive rural development with many welfare schemes implemented by our beloved Chief Minister resonates strongly with the masses. As for the opposition, they lack manpower and organisation. Do you expect us to provide with both?’
Not everyone agrees. According to opposition parties, the main reason for such lop-sided ‘results’ is an unprecedented level of pre-poll terror campaign accompanied by physical violence all over the state, with the police remaining inactive. This was what had prompted the targeted opposition parties to approach the Supreme Court.
And it is not just the opposition singing its sad litany of complaints. Even TMC minister Siddiqullah Choudhury has publicly asked of his leadership as to whether the use of such force and strong arm tactics was really necessary. This would help only the BJP in the long run, he feared. Chatterjee lost no time to pacify him by promising to include his followers in the new emerging power structure in the panchayats, on instructions from the Chief Minister.
With most of the pliant electronic and print media underplaying the violence, it took a Delhi-based daily to point out that ‘at least three people were killed and hundreds were injured, including eight time veteran MP Basudab Acharya and seven time MP Ramchandra Dom’ not to mention scores of arson, looting and assault cases.
Even as the smaller TV channels covered the endless spiral of what appeared to be state-encouraged violence, Chief Minister Banerjee claimed there were only seven instances, in two of which ‘peaceful’ TMC cadres had been victimised! The very next day, CPI(M) leader Biman Bose released a list of at least 70 incidents to newsmen. State BJP president Dilip Ghosh pointed out that there had been over 450 attacks on BJP candidates and their supporters, including attacks on women!
With polling process now to be resumed, opposition parties fear the next stage of the terror campaign would be launched as armed TMC cadres would begin the ‘persuasion’ campaign against those who have managed to file their nominations. Urging upon them to withdraw — or else.
The only silver lining for the pathetically sidelined opposition in Bengal is there are over three or four TMC candidates fighting for each panchayat seat at all levels. Chatterjee claims these reports are exaggerated but he lost face when MP Kalyan Banerjee unwittingly admitted this during his arguments in court! However, Chatterjee is confident of sorting everything out during the next few days. (IPA Service)
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