Vol. XLIII No. 11 March 17, 2019

On Subversion of Democracy in the Ongoing West Bengal Panchayat Poll

THE 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of India expresses grave concern about the extreme threat faced by grassroots democracy in West Bengal. This is clearly manifest in events leading up to the panchayat elections in 2018, where the entire election process has now been rendered uncertain. It may be recalled that during Left Front rule, panchayati raj institutions in the state were celebrated in India and abroad as shining examples of democratic decentralisation.
Panchayat elections were held under TMC rule for the first time in 2013. Despite obstructions posed by the ruling party, elections could be held on time thanks to the courageous and independent stand of the State Election Commissioner and because of the intervention of the Supreme Court. Even then the elections were marred by widespread rigging and fascistic terror unleashed by the ruling party in collusion with the state police.
This time the State Election Commission, acting as a puppet of the ruling party, advanced the election schedule in haste to suit the ruling party. The election process, starting with submission of nominations from April 2, witnessed outright fascistic terror and pre-election rigging through orchestrated attacks by TMC goons and the police. The refusal of the State Election Commission to act in an impartial manner led to the filing of a series of complaints in the High Court and the Supreme Court. 
The panchayat system has fallen victim to the tactics of the ruling TMC of spreading terror at an unprecedented scale. The panchayat system, once an expression of people’s power, and an instrument of development through the involvement and participation of the people, has been reduced to a regime of systematic loot and plunder. The system has been overtaken by corrupt elements and vested interests patronised by the ruling clique. A total disregard for rules and norms has become a defining feature of the present reality. 
Villagers are forced to pay “commission” to TMC leaders to avail government-funded schemes, and are victims of extortion by ruling party-sponsored contractors. Leaders of the ruling party are engaged in grabbing agricultural land, water bodies, and forest produce with impunity. A parallel economy of loot and ransom has spread across the state. To sustain and reinforce its hegemony the TMC has made the infamous announcement about “opposition-free panchayats” while infighting in TMC’s own ranks are taking the shape of bloody gang-wars. 
Now, in the run up to the panchayat elections, the ruling TMC is engaged insabotaging the election process while also promoting communal polarisation in the state. The aim is to polarise the electorate between the two reactionary camps – the TMC and the BJP. The toxic impact of competitive communalism indulged in by the BJP and the TMC is tearing apart the glorious legacy of communal harmony in West Bengal. The incidence of riots during Ram Navami celebrations sponsored by the BJP and the TMC has worsened the situation.
While the BJP hopes to make electoral gains through such communal polarisation, the TMC expects to weaken the Left by promoting the growth of the BJP. Such a situation also helps the TMC by deflecting attention away from serious issues that affect people, such as the agricultural crisis, suicides of farmers, joblessness, and problems in the education and health sectors. 
In the midst of this communally-charged situation, the State Election Commission, at the diktat of the government, declared that panchayat elections would be held on May 1, 3, and 5. Nominations were to be filed from April 2 to April 9.
While earlier, the state has witnessed widespread rigging of elections by organised capturing of booths, this is the first time elections are sought to be rigged by capturing administrative offices such as block development offices, SDO offices, and even district magistrate offices, by armed gangs of the ruling TMC. Armed gangs of the TMC were deployed, in connivance with the state police forces, to deny the opposition, particularly the Left, the opportunity to file nominations. Though candidates of the TMC were able to file nominations in all seats as per schedule, opposition candidates were not allowed to file nominations in most seats. Opposition leaders, activists and candidates were beaten and attacked with firearms, while the police remained silent spectators or actually participated in acts of intimidation and terror. Opposition candidates were not allowed to approach offices of the BDO and the SDO in the first three days available for filing of nominations. The opposition then tried to file their nominations collectively in the form of processions. Even such processions were stoned and TMC goons hurled bombs at them.
Despite such brutal attacks, Left Front candidates did not succumb and fought valiantly. Now, the TMC goons are terrorising villagers to force opposition candidates to withdraw their nominations. TMC hooligans are intimidating family members of opposition candidates and threatening them with dire consequences if their nominations are not withdrawn. As a result of the tactics of organised terror and violence, the TMC has already captured a huge number of seats uncontested.
The role of the puppet State Election Commission during this whole period of violence and anarchy has been most unfortunate. The Commission shamelessly revoked its own order to extend the schedule for filing of nomination papers by a day. However, on April 20, the Kolkata High Court, while rejecting the state government’s arguments, ordered the SEC to announce new dates for filing of nominations, and for polling. 
The Left parties and their mass organisations are mobilising people of the state to fight against this assault on democracy and this sinister design to sabotage the panchayat system in the state. 
The 22nd Congress of the CPI(M) condemns the subversion of democracy and fascistic terror perpetrated by goons of the ruling TMC during the pre-poll period of the 2018 panchayat elections in West Bengal. The Congress further demands that peaceful, free and fair panchayat election be ensured and calls upon the people of the country to express their solidarity with the people of West Bengal who are courageously fighting authoritarian terror and communal conspiracy.