3 min read.Updated: 13 Apr 2021, 12:45 AM ISTRahul Verma,Ankita Barthwal
More than a third of panchayat seats in the 2018 West Bengal elections went uncontested, suggesting unprecedented levels of coercion in rural areas
The recent violence in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district, which prompted the Election Commission of India (ECI) to impose curbs on political activity in the election-bound state, has once again put the spotlight on political violence in Bengal.
Threats and physical attacks on rival party members have been a problem in the eastern state for many years now. Instead of declining, the violence has only intensified in recent years, data shows.
Seen in this context, the unprecedented 8-phase election in the state starts making sense. Several political parties including the incumbent All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) had expressed unhappiness with the staggered election schedule, alleging political bias on the part of the ECI to favour the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which wields power at the centre.
Given the spate of political violence during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the state, the ECI may have been merely cautious in planning such a schedule. That also seems to explain why roughly half of the paramilitary forces requisitioned for the ongoing elections across five states have been stationed in West Bengal alone.
A comparison with neighbouring Bihar, which has similar population density and multi-party competition as West Bengal, is instructive. Bihar has similar number of phases as West Bengal for Lok Sabha elections but the number of voting phases have declined in assembly elections. As electoral malpractices have declined in recent years, it appears that electoral management in Bihar has become easier.
In contrast to Bihar, political violence has only escalated in West Bengal in recent years. The panchayat election months of 2018 saw much higher levels of political violence in rural Bengal than in other months, data collated from the global non-profit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the state topped the list of ‘political murders’ in the country in 2018. A similar figure was not available for 2019 because the state government refused to share data with the union home ministry, which runs NCRB. According to figures presented by the Left government in the legislative assembly, 28,000 political murders were committed in the state between 1977-1997.
All of this suggests that the roots of violence lie deep, and that they have become entrenched over time, creating a vicious cycle of fear and silence.
If the Trinamool complained about violence by Left Front goons earlier, now it faces the same charges. An analysis of the 2013 panchayat elections showed that the cash-crop rich regions dominated by the Trinamool that year were earlier under the absolute control of the Left.
The Trinamool borrowed the tactics, and sometimes the cadre, of the Left. But it seems to have gone beyond earlier intimidation tactics. The share of uncontested gram panchayat seats was roughly 11 percent in both the 2003 and 2013 elections. In all other local elections since 1978, the proportion was much smaller. 2018 marked a significant departure, with the share of such seats spiking to 34 percent, suggesting unprecedented levels of coercion.
Data from a survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS just after the previous assembly polls in 2016 also hint at a culture of violence and intimidation.
Dwaipayan Bhattacharya’s research on Left rule suggests a unique ‘party-society’ presence in Bengal, with parties exerting influence on all aspects of civil life. Rather than state functionaries, ruling party activists have emerged as the de facto arbiters of justice and governance in rural areas. Another strand of research suggests that violence on supporters of rival parties is not just tolerated, but even celebrated in the state. With neither legal or social sanctions, violence thrives.
The election rhetoric around Bengal’s literary greats, Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam, might mislead one into thinking that elections in West Bengal are largely a contest around words and ideas. The reality is far grimmer.
The authors work at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR).
Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.
Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint.
our App Now!!