Editor's note: This article was originally published on 1 May. It is being updated in light of the West Bengal panchayat elections that will take place on 14 May.
It looks as though the process leading to the panchayat elections in West Bengal is back on track after being derailed by violence, intimidation and consequent legal challenges. The state government and the SEC have moved somewhat in the right direction given the existing constraints, pre-eminently the need to finish the election before the onset of Ramzan, which gives it just one available date: 14 May. This has compelled the commission to accede to the government's advice that polling should be held on one day. Given the situation on the ground – of which more in a bit – it is unsurprising that Opposition parties are not impressed and that they will press for a judicial intervention to prevent a one-phase election.
The SEC (and, by extension, the government) will have to show the court hard data about deployment. At present, the state government can provide over 46,000 armed personnel to provide security for 43,000-odd locations hosting 58,500-odd booths. Not many are convinced that these numbers add up to adequate security.
A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that an irreducible minimum of around 85,000 personnel will be the requirement. The state government's offer to provide 110,000 (unarmed) civic volunteers and home guards will not, in all likelihood, cut the mustard, with the Opposition or the court.
The government has, therefore, requested backup forces from other states, including neighbouring Odisha and Bihar, as well as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It hopes that West Bengal will get positive responses from the states it has approached by 3 May, before the court hearing.
This will be crucial given the latest numbers from the SEC, following the expiry of the deadline for the withdrawal of nominations. The figures are startling: first, three zila parishads have been taken by the ruling Trinamool Congress prior to polling; and, second, over 34 percent of seats across the three tiers of rural self-government will not be contested at all, ensuring victories for the Trinamool.
Broken down, this means that 34.6 percent of seats for the lowest tier – the gram panchayats – will remain uncontested. In ascending order, the corresponding figures are 33.2 percent for panchayat samitis and 24.6 percent for zila parishads.
This is literally unprecedented. Ever since panchayat elections began to be held regularly in Bengal in 1978 (that is before the 72nd amendment of 1992, which set up a new three-tier structure for elected rural self-government), there have been only two instances of the percentage of uncontested seats going into double digits: 11 percent in 2003 (under the Left Front) and 10.66 percent in 2013 (under the Trinamool Congress). This means that the number of uncontested seats is more than three times the previous high.
It also means that if the panchayat elections go ahead according to the new, one-phase schedule – after the state government and SEC manage to put together a security plan with back-up from other states that will satisfy the high court – the damage will already have been done. The playing field is not level; the Opposition is facing mountains, not hillocks.
It does appear that the likelihood that the court will not block the elections is reasonably high because the indications are that help from other states will, indeed, be forthcoming.
If that happens, the likelihood is that the ruling party in West Bengal will sweep the panchayat elections. It is, for a start, not unlikely that it will capture all the zila parishads. There could be a semblance of a contest in three districts. At the next level, few panchayat samitis will be in Opposition hands.
That the Trinamool Congress would not face serious opposition was a foregone conclusion. It didn't have to resort to widespread violence and intimidation to obtain a satisfactory result. The fact that these occurred shows that the ruling party's leadership cannot impose order on the organisation, because the organisational machinery of the party is shambolic, to the extent that it exists at all. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had a streamlined machine, which the leadership could use to control intimidation of opponents, which did happen pervasively, however.
The Trinamool leadership's lack of control is also evident from the factionalism that has torn the party apart in some areas. That will be a matter of concern for the leadership, especially given that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is well set to emerge as the biggest Opposition party. This means that it has grown beyond the bigger cities – it is not just an urban phenomenon anymore. If the BJP gets above or around 20 percent of the vote, which is not unlikely, it will be a huge achievement.
Updated Date: May 14, 2018 07:30 AM