Since the beginning of nomination filing for the forthcoming Panchayat election frequent issues of political conflicts are occupying news headlines. This conflicting situation and post conflict blame game is not unique to 2013 Panchayat election only, rather similar incidents are becoming increasingly common for last few elections. Even elections of much lesser significance like School committee votes, college students’ union formation have witnessed unprecedented violence in recent period. There is a trend of use of the term ‘occupancy’ (dakhol) instead of election (nirbachan) to characterise the so called democratic process which reflects a particular way of thinking of the political parties in contemporary West Bengal.
It is important to look at the background factors that are responsible for these conflicts to find out why political parties try to capture Panchayats and often tend to undermine the fair democratic process of winning elections. In my anthropological fieldworks in different parts of Bardhaman, Purba Medinipur, Paschim Medinipur, Purulia, Bankura, and Murshidabad I have seen strong fissures based on political orientation. Although rural West Bengal is often portrayed as a peaceful place where the political conflicts occur only when election takes place, this is precisely not the case. Rural party politics remains conflict bounded throughout the year. Panchayat as a Local Governance system rarely enjoys freedom in delivering public goods in a closely knitted and prominently divided party based society. It is seen that from the decisions of choosing the beneficiary for MGNREGS to large-scale works like construction of roads and distribution of tube-wells are based on electoral calculations. For example, in a coalition GP (Gram Panchayat, the lowest of the three tier system), suppose X has 5 Y has 3 and Z has 2 and the opposition has 2 there will be a percentage calculation within the coalition. The total 10 seats (X+Y+Z, of course opposition is excluded from the calculation) represent 100 percent and hence X with 5 seats will pull approximately 50 percent of the total public goods to be distributed which sidesteps prioritisation process often undermining Annual Action Plan – a feature I have seen in several GPs in Bardhaman, Purba and Paschim Medinipur, Murshidabad, Purulia and Bankura. In a single party ruled GP there are more serious problems with party factions and leaders having stronger network with higher political authorities tend to dominate the entire distribution process. Hence, skewed allocation of public services characterise many Panchayats in West Bengal. There are few exceptions where voice of the opposition gets manifested and Annual Action Plans are strictly followed. Otherwise skewed resource allocation is a quite consistent picture of the state. While different studies focus on the importance of functionally effective Gram Sabhas to enhance the performance of a GP, these democratic participatory processes are frequently avoided, instead decisions are taken by the powerful political leaders. In 2003 when GoWB initiated the formation of Gram Unnayan Samiti in each and every village constituted by the elected representatives, nearest opposition and nominated members like government employees, teachers and Self Help Group members aiming at apolitical planning and implementation, I saw conflicts and bloodsheds in Purba Medinipur, Murshidabad, and Bardhaman as local political leaders perceived Gram Unnayan Samiti as another platform to exercise political authority in addition to Panchayats. In paper it was a selection of ideally non political people. Villagers were supposed to name and then raise their hands in support of the name in an open forum. However, in practice I have seen that in many villages two panels are placed by two parties and eventual open voting revealed everybody’s political identity. This is indicative of existing polarised condition of the villages where Panchayat functions. Although regularised elections, land reforms, and better distribution of public goods have helped GPs to gain trust of the villagers under Left Front Regime, in last few years, different studies have focused on the increasing politicisation of Panchayats.
With increasingly more resources being distributed through the Panchayat machinery especially after the onslaught of direct benefiting schemes like MGNREGS, IAY, Old Age Pensions, etc., controlling Panchayats virtually ensures gaining political control over a considerably large population. Present pre-election violence represents politically fragmented and polarised nature of rural West Bengal. In different election campaigns leaders are terming their political oppositions (Rajnaitik Pratipakhkha) as enemy (Shatru) to be wiped out and their cadres are following the instructions wherever a party has strength. Pre-election violence installed by regular direct and indirect threats including party instructions to vote for them, violent conflicts between opposing parties, biking rallies, bringing outside yobs either compel people to vote for a particular party or to avoid voting. Beating out opposition party cadres, attacking party offices, stopping people from participating in election process always effectively create an image of fear that heavily influence patterns of democratic function in a region. Constitutional bodies like Election Commission can only attempt a fair election with adequate protection during the election period. However, they can neither provide long-term solution to the problem of political fragmentation nor can ensure security in everyday life. As a result using people’s feeling of insecurity political parties continue to practice occupancy rather than election. If political parties do not stop avoiding, undermining and disrespecting the democratic process, administration does not work in a judicial manner and people do not become more politically conscious, West Bengal will see more instances of political violence and development process will continue to get affected.