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PUCL Bulletin, July 2003

West Bengal - Still a role model for Panchayat Raj
-- By George Mathew

West Bengal has been the role model for grass roots democracy, decentralisation and local governance since 1978. So much so that when the Janata Party came to power in Karnataka in the early 1980s, a team of legislators went to West Bengal to study the working of the panchayats before drafting their path braking Panchayat Bill of 1983. West Bengal blazed a historic trail for the entire nation by institutionalising democracy at the base of India's democratic edifice, thereby creating the necessary environment for Rajiv Gandhi to move the 64th Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament on May 15, 1989.

But today, after 25 years, West Bengal is in the news for the intensity of violence in the elections to the very institution which had occupied a pride of place in the nation as a whole. The recent elections surpassed all State records in violence, killings, coercion, intimidation and terror tactics.
The notification for the election was issued on April 3, 2003, and the elections were held on May 11. According to reports (Ananda Bazar Patrika), 47 persons lost their lives till May 9 and thereafter another 29 were killed. Of 76 victims, 31 were CPI (M) workers, 19 were from the Congress, eight from the Trinamool Congress eight from the BJP and 10 from other parties. The CPI (M) was singled out for attack.

However, a matter of greater concern is the number of uncontested seats reaching nearly 11 percent at the three levels. About 6,300 seats went uncontested and most of them went to the CPI (M) and its allies. In Hooghly district alone, it was over 40 percent in village Samitis and 25 percent in Zilla Panchayats. Whatever the explanation, poll violence has taken the shine out of the much awaited panchayat elections in a State which could be considered the cradle of grassroots democracy.

After the 73rd Constitution Amendment became law in 1993, violence in local elections had increased. In Madhya Pradesh, the first State to hold elections (1994), 17 persons died in poll-related violence. In the same year, the toll in Tripura was eight and during the 1997 Orissa panchayat elections, 12 persons died. In Tamil Nadu, though there were no casualties during the 1996 elections, there were incidents of killing in the post-election months (Madurai, Melavalavu). The figures for some other States are: Utter Pradesh (2000) 20; Andhra Pradesh (2001) 14, and Jammu and Kashmir (2001) 14.

There is a view that the involvement of political parties in the panchayat elections is the root cause of violence. West Bengal was the first State to hold elections to the panchayat with the official participation of political parties in June 1978. Although there was opposition to the involvement of the political parties, the CPI (M) and its allies preferred, and perhaps rightly so, the official recognition of parties in the panchayat elections because it would put an end to the age-old tradition of rural coteries reaping the benefits for narrow, sectarian and caste interests.

Also, the direct involvement of political parties in the panchayats could make the local level leadership more disciplined and responsible. In fact, the 1978, 1983 and 1988 panchayat elections in West Bengal were relatively peaceful (but in the 1993 elections, 42 persons lost their lives). Moreover, in about 13 States where parties have been actively participating in these elections since 1994 there has been no serious instance of violence. At the same time, in the Bihar panchayat elections of 1978 held without official party participation, the casualties were about 750. During the 2001 elections to the panchayat in Bihar held on party lines, it was feared that the casualties would be 10 time that of 1978. But the unofficial estimate put the figure at 136.

The West Bengal elections present the picture of the opposition parties trying to overthrow through democratic and violent means the party which has been ruling the State for so long and the party at the receiving end and its allies retaliating using the same means. In the process, peaceful democratic tools have become the casualty.

It must be recognised that increased violence in local elections is because of the proximity of the people to the candidates, their conflicting interests and the parties or their candidates representing one or the other of the traditional rival interest group. With the strengthening of the panchayats in the last 10 years and their having enormous potential for governance and development, with large resources at their command, the elected members and presidents have become the main stakeholders.

In the prevailing political culture and in the absence of a strong tradition of checks and balances and organised people's power, the tremendous possibilities for development of our villages are being sabotaged by the elected leaders in many a case for personal aggrandizement or for the party's short-term advantage. This situation attracts a sizeable number of lumpen elements to contest the elections and large-scale violence in the inevitable outcome. It is well acknowledged that West Bengal has made exceptional progress in rural development after the new panchayats were launched 25 years ago.

The recent India Today survey of States shows that Bengal has gained one point each in prosperity, agriculture, health, infrastructure, investment scenario and consumer markets over the last survey (1991), but in two areas the State has gone down - law and order and education. Election-related violence and country bomb-making are manifestations of this general deterioration. In 1993, after the panchayat elections, this writer met the then Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, along with a Chinese delegation which had come to study the elections. Mr. Basu admitted that the progress in the field of education was unsatisfactory and that the State would make all efforts to catch up through the panchayats. But after 10 years, west Bengal is still lagging behind.

The most notable achievement of the CPI (M) Government is that clientelism and patronage, based on religion, caste, communal or feudal interests, have almost disappeared from West Bengal. They are now along party lines in the State. It may be seen as a higher level of social development but if it leads to violent tensions and conflicts, then steps are needed to stem the rot.

A Bengali villager cannot imagine his/her life without the panchayats. The recent panchayat elections recorded one of the highest percentages of polling - 80 - because the people have a great stake in it. For the same reason, elections are fought bitterly and aggressively. But there is a price. About 10 years ago, one could see that in the West Bengal villages, while local leaders from different ideological background fought elections bitterly, they overcome their divide when it came to fighting for the development of their village. Is this something gone forever? The recent panchayat elections provide an extraordinary opportunity for the CPI (M) to pause and reflect.


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