The bugle for West Bengal’s panchayat elections has been sounded and for the first time, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) will see a direct fight with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has emerged as a major opposition party in the state. The direct clash between the two is evident from the large number of nominations being filed by the BJP for the first time in a panchayat election in Bengal. The ruling TMC has filed over 7,000 nominations until Thursday, while the BJP had filed around 4,500 nominations until the same time. The Congress, on the other hand, had filed some 570 nominations and the CPM around 1,600.
The rise of the BJP on the national stage, coupled with the fact that the Congress and the CPM were facing one poll debacle after another, led to the growth of the BJP as a major political party in Bengal. Political analysts and experts claim that the widespread violence between TMC and BJP cadre being witnessed in the state, is a fallout of the direct contest between the two parties.
A political science professor from Calcutta University, who did not wish to be named, said, “Panchayat elections in Bengal have always seen violence and bloodshed. It is about muscle and money power and whoever has both has the upper hand in local body elections. Earlier, the fight was between the CPM and Congress. This changed to TMC and CPM in the 1990s, and in 2018, with the unprecedented growth of the BJP across Bengal, we are seeing clashes between TMC and BJP. But what is different this time is that opposition parties are not being allowed to even file their nominations. Earlier, fights took place in poll booths during the election.”
Ever since the filing of nominations began on 2 April, clashes between TMC and BJP have been reported from various parts of the state. The BJP has alleged that TMC “goons” are “hijacking” and manning with sticks the government offices where nominations are to be filed. The TMC has rubbished such allegations and has said that it is the BJP that is creating the chaos.
Senior BJP leader Joyprakash Mazumdar told The Sunday Guardian, “Democracy is at its lowest in the state. The way our candidates are being threatened and beaten is not healthy for democracy. The Chief Minister of the state herself says that she wants an election minus opposition parties (birodhi sunno election). Is this a healthy democracy? There is huge resentment among the people of Bengal and because of this resentment, the BJP has grown manifold in the state. The government is scared that it might lose the elections.”
The BJP has also alleged that at least one their candidates, Ajit Murmu, 40, was killed by TMC goons in Bankura while he was going to file his nomination, while another BJP candidate was shot at in Bankura on Friday.
Other reports of violence have been received from areas like Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas, Malda, Uttar Dinajpur, and Diamond Harbour, among many other places.
Rupa Ganguly, senior BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member, said, “BJP candidates are being threatened constantly. They are being attacked in the night. The TMC goons are disconnecting power in the areas and attacking BJP members by barging into their houses. Is this how the TMC wants to conduct democratic elections? Several of our rallies have been attacked. We are not living in a democracy.”
The BJP has also questioned the role of the West Bengal administration and the police, while demanding the induction of Central police force during the panchayat elections and an online system for filing of nominations for candidates. In this regard, the party has also filed a petition in the Supreme Court, which will decide on the matter on Monday.
However, the TMC has rubbished all such allegations against the party. Partha Chatterjee, senior TMC leader and a minister in the Bengal government, said, “Lies are being spread against our party. If we are not allowing the opposition to file nominations, how have they been able to file such a huge number of nominations? This is propaganda to malign the government and the administration. We do not indulge in any form of violence and believe in the democratic structure of the country.”
Kakoli Sengupta, Head of the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, said, “This election is a direct fight for power between the two parties. The BJP, after its success in Tripura, has openly declared that Bengal would be their next state and they are starting their preparations for the same. The direct clash between the party that is in power and the party that wants to come to power is a fight that is inevitable.”
A total number of 48,650 gram panchayats, 9,217 panchayat samitis and 825 zila parishads will be going to the polls in the three-phase panchayat elections that will begin on 1 May and end on 5 May. Results will be declared on 8 May. More than five-and-a-half crore voters will cast their votes in this election.