The bugle for the panchayat (village level) elections in West Bengal was sounded earlier last week, with the State Election Commission (SEC) declaring voting for all panchayats in a single phase across the state. But soon after, reports of violence started coming from all over Bengal—violence that was being committed allegedly by the hooligans belonging to the Trinamool Congress (TMC). They were allegedly harassing, threatening and even preventing candidates from Opposition parties such as the BJP, the CPM and the Congress from filing their nominations. However, when asked, the TMC denies all such accusations, saying that the party does not encourage goons in any way.
Even though just two days have passed since the nomination process for the panchayat elections has started, at least one death has been reported from the state. A Congress leader from Murshidabad district was killed allegedly in an election related violence. The Congress alleged that TMC goons fired five rounds of bullets in the Khargram region of Murshidabad district, killing Congress leader Fulchand Sheikh and injuring three others.
Several other people from various districts of Bengal have been injured in clashes that have been breaking out daily while BJP, CPM and Congress leaders have been going to file their nominations at the local Block Development Officer’s (BDO) office in their respective areas.
On the first day of nomination, violence from various districts was reported, where alleged TMC goons heckled and attacked Opposition candidates including BJP candidates while they were on their way to file nominations. The BJP told The Sunday Guardian that at least a dozen of their karyakartas (workers) were injured in attacks by the TMC and were undergoing treatment in various hospitals across the state.
In South 24 Parganas’ Canning, which comes under the Diamond Harbour Lok Sabha constituency, represented by Abhishek Banerjee, nephew of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, violence was reported on the first day of nomination. A local BJP leader was brutally beaten inside the BDO office and is currently undergoing treatment at a local hospital there.
Violence has also been reported from the Birbhum district where BJP leaders have been stopped from filing their nomination by bike-borne hoodlums who were allegedly from the TMC. These bike-borne thugs, the BJP claimed, had sticks and hockey sticks with them which they used to beat up BJP candidates, because of which several have been admitted to the hospital.
Bengal BJP’s chief spokesperson, Shamik Bhattacharya, told The Sunday Guardian that the elections were declared so hurriedly that the BDOs, in whose offices the nominations are to be filed, have been caught off guard, “They (BDO) are not prepared, when our candidates went to file their nominations the BDOs did not have the required documents, some BDOs even fled from their office. TMC workers are entering BDO offices and stopping BJP candidates from filing their nomination. Today in Bishnupur Lok Sabha constituency bombs were hurled at a BJP rally by the TMC cadre.”
“The TMC has already started their dirty politics, they have started to resort to violent politics and have even issued rape and death threats to BJP workers and candidates. This election is going to be a bloody one. A lot of blood will be shed by TMC goons. They (TMC) will not let a free and fair election process to take place in Bengal, and this is not the BJP saying, this is being said by the common people of Bengal, from tea stalls to trains,” Bhattacharya told this newspaper.
Bhattacharya further said that the BJP has demanded that even before the nomination starts Central forces should be deployed in the state to ensure that free and fair elections take place.
“74,000 booths are going to the polls on a single day in these panchayat elections. Where are the required number of police personnel to conduct the elections on a single day? We have heard that they will use the civic volunteers in police uniform, people who act as TMC’s extended cadre, to conduct the elections. This is a murder of democracy. In fact, some in the TMC government do not believe in the process of democracy, they are murdering democracy every day in Bengal. Panchayat elections will be a mockery of democracy by the TMC and this will be witnessed by the whole country in the coming days. The TMC does not believe in having an Opposition and does not give any space to the Opposition in West Bengal,” Bhattacharya told The Sunday Guardian.
The BJP has also alleged that the TMC has been sharing a letter on social media threatening BJP candidates against filing nominations for the panchayat polls, saying if any BJP candidate filed their nomination they would be “killed”. The TMC, however, rubbished these allegations and senior TMC leader and Rajya Sabha MP Santanu Sen told The Sunday Guardian, “The BJP and the Opposition do not have any candidates and leaders in the state and therefore have started to make all these false claims to save their face. If they were prepared for the elections and had candidates, they would not make these unnecessary noises and would have started to work for the elections long back. These are all baseless allegations. Nothing like this is happening in Bengal.”
The CPM too has claimed that their candidates have been stopped from filing nominations at several places, allegedly by TMC goons. On Saturday, the CPM claimed that several of their candidates were stopped by TMC goons holding TMC flags and sticks from filing nominations in Murshidabad district.
The West Bengal State Election Commission led by former Chief Secretary of the state and current Chief Election Commissioner of West Bengal, Rajiv Sinha declared the dates of the panchayat elections earlier last week. According to the State Election Commission, the elections to 31,802 gram panchayats, 6,123 panchayat samitis and 621 zilla parishads will be held in a single phase on 8 July and the results will likely be declared by the 11 July.
The Bihar-born Rajiv Sinha is a 1986 batch IAS officer from the Bengal cadre. He is a trusted officer of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. He was appointed State Election Commissioner on 28 May, and was approved by West Bengal Governor C.V. Ananda Bose. Sinha was the Chief Secretary of the state during the Covid 19-pandemic.
The BJP and the Congress have moved the Calcutta High Court challenging the limited time given for filing nominations for such a large number of seats across the state and also demanding that Central forces be deployed for the smooth conduct of the local body elections. To which the Division Bench led by the Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, T.S Sivagnanam has said that the State Election Commission should re-think on the dates given for nomination filing and that the deployment of Central forces should be taken by the state government after assessing the law-and-order situation in the state. The next date for hearing this case is on Monday.
West Bengal has a history of bloody local body polls. Right from the time the Left ruled Bengal, successive panchayat and local body polls were marred with violence. The ruling TMC has been accused of resorting to similar violent tactics to rig the elections and get a favourable result for themselves.
According to political experts in Bengal, the 34 years of Left rule began the process of resorting to violence, booth capturing and rigging during the local body polls and that is how the Left kept ruling the third tier of democracy for a long time. This policy was adopted by the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC too once came to power in 2011. Not much has been forgotten from the 2018 panchayat polls that put West Bengal into the national headlines for the kind of violence that was reported during the panchayat polls.
In the 2018 local body polls in Bengal at least 30 people were killed in poll related violence and more than 100 were injured. There were serious allegations of intimidation and rigging where ballot boxes from polling booths were shown being captured on live television. Reports of ballot boxes and voting papers being thrown into ponds and that of murders, arson and guns were also visible during the last elections.
In the 2018 panchayat elections, at least 34% of the total seats that went to the polls were uncontested. This was not because the other political parties could not find candidates but because they were simply not allowed to file nominations. Several visuals of how Opposition candidates were attacked while they were on their way to file nominations were telecast live. However, this time, the TMC and the State Election Commission have assured that there would be no violence in the panchayat polls and that the polls would be free and fair.