Panchayat as of now:
What makes West Bengal's panchayat election 2018 unique? I am sure there will be a long list of issues ranging from prepoll nomination related violence to court intervention. However, violence in Panchayat election is not new in West Bengal (click here for an old post). People here are election enthusiast and Panchayat has increasingly become the most important power center for the mobilisation of power and authority. Moreover, with more fund getting injected Panchayat is definitely the space where one can earn significant amount of corrupt"cut money". Meanwhile, there is no denying of the fact that Panchayats in West Bengal is doing superbly well in terms of visible development initiatives. Of course, less visible ones like women and child health etc. are ignored despite of the fact that there is a 50% reservation of the women. There are subtle mechanisms of power subversion in an otherwise masculine space of Panchayat that requires comprehensive research work. World Bank seems to be happy with the performance of the Panchayats in West Bengal. There is quite a rise in the MGNREGS implementation in West Bengal (from 34.7 to 46.91 days on average click here).
While West Bengal is gaining momentum in terms of visible development programmes especially the development of infrastructure issues, it is also important to understand that such a good performance is largely based on a well trained human resource coming from DFID sponsored Strengthening Rural Decentralisaiton (SRD) scheme and of late World Bank sponsored Institutional Strengthening of Gram Panchayat (ISGP). Hence, the performance largely is linked to the strong bureaucracy. The elected members are still playing submissive roles and there is hardly any strong and organised vibrant Gram Sabha exists in practice. The space for deliberative democratic practice in Gram Sabha was always sidelined even during the Left period. Hence, Panchayat is increasingly becoming a space for the bureaucratic exercise and if I am not totally wrong will continue embrace this form of development governance.
The reasons for discomfort:
|Percentage of uncontested seats in West Bengal since 1978 (source click here)|
Before exploring the reasons for the discomfort with the diminishing role of the people's participation in decision making through Panchayat let me show you figure above. It shows the percentage of uncontested seats over the years in Panchayat election in West Bengal. You can see the steep rise. Yes, this year is a record.
While, it is difficult to conclude that absence of people's active participation is the reason for such absence of democratic functioning, it nevertheless, did play a role. While the Panchayat offices are becoming more bureaucracy dependent, there might be swift delivery of public services, but it will alienate the public sphere that surrounds the institution of local governance.
Hence, the occupancy of Panchayat happens to the sole motive of the political parties to 'continue or capture' the centre of power. Interestingly, there is a accumulation of power to the office instead of decentering of power through the processes of deliberative democracy and direct democracy.
The passivity of the civil:
While, at local level there is an increasing absence of vibrant public sphere as a approving/disapproving authority of the Panchayat activities, there is a predictable silence from the crystallized form of public sphere, i.e. the civil society. There is a predictable answer to this silence. While, people's disinterestedness in Panchayat is one reason that might be playing a crucial role in the villages, city based, especially the educated civil society might have failed to comprehend the depth of Panchayat poll violence, as TMC happens to be one of the major role players to combat Hindutva packed BJP forces.
While civil society is already 'hegemonised' with the dominant narrative of protecting the bigger enemy of Hindutva they sheldom fight it in their everyday practices. Apart from the rhetorical remembrance of Babri Masjid domolition, untill now there was no concrete plan to combat neither Hindutva nor Islamisation.
One question might keep a thinking soul awaken a) aren't we undermining the dreadful potential of Panchayat violence and lack of democratic functioning because we perceive hindutva to be a bigger enemy?
Image courtesy: http://www.catchnews.com/politics-news/fresh-dates-for-bengal-panchayat-polls-nomination-window-to-reopen-109008.html