As the people of rural West Bengal cast their ballots today to elect grassroots panchayat representatives, the violence that marred the runup to the three-tier polls continues to haunt them. Violence in any form is highly deplorable and it becomes all the more so when it is unleashed to take control of institutions such as panchayats that form the bedrock of democracy. The toll in West Bengal’s poll-related violence stands at 20 at the moment.
There is no denying that stakes are high for all the parties taking part in these polls which will serve as a litmus test for the 2024 parliamentary elections and could influence the reshaping of West Bengal’s political landscape. Around 5.67 crore voters are exercising their franchise to choose representatives for nearly 928 seats across 22 zilla parishads, 9,730 panchayat samities, and 63,229 gram panchayats.
The real contest is between Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is the main opposition party in the state. Congress and the left parties are also treating the panchayat elections as an opportunity to retrieve their lost vote-bank. High stakes, however, cannot justify violence.
The spree of violence has put the ruling TMC in the dock with its cadres being accused of intimidating the Opposition candidates and party workers. This reflects a disturbing aspect of the state’s political culture where electoral violence is treated as par for the course. In election after election, whether it be to local bodies, state legislature or the Lok Sabha, violence continues to mar the nomination process, campaigns as well as voting.
The culture of violence in elections in West Bengal developed during the Left rule. Successive left governments in the state either denied the involvement of their cadre in incidents of violence or sought to justify it by citing alleged provocation from the Opposition. Political violence in the state gradually became more organised and served as an effective tool to silence the opposition.
The same culture seems to have been inherited by the TMC whose leadership has utterly failed to rein in the cadres chasing and beating up opponents in broad daylight. The state had seen large-scale violence even during the last assembly elections which brought TMC and BJP face to face. With the rivalry between the two parties sharpening further since the announcement of assembly results which brought Mamata Banerjee back to power again, there has been no let-up in political violence in the state.
The BJP has complained time and again about alleged attacks on its cadres by TMC workers in different parts of the state. Mamata, however, has chosen to look the other way and even accused the saffron party of engineering violence with a view to tarnishing the image of her government. The chief minister of West Bengal would, however, do well to take a leaf out of her Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik’s book. As a strong votary of democracy, Patnaik has always ensured complete peace during elections in his state. It is an example that the whole country would do well to follow.