commentary

The Party and the Panchayats of West Bengal
Partha Sarathi Banerjee

Despite substantial decentralisation of power through panchayati raj institutions in West Bengal, the presence of an entrenched centralised party in power in the state has meant the use of such institutions as instruments of patronage. Violent battles have invariably taken place during panchayat elections, as these are seen as necessary by all political parties to capture or retain hold over the institutions.

he panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) have always been seen as local selfgovernments, i e, a tool for decentralisation of power to the rural people, particularly to the vast poor and marginal sections of the rural society. West Bengal has been a showcase of panchayati decentralisation in India, as it is here that the PRIs have been functioning most effectively for the last 30 years. But the latest election to the three tier panchayats in this state has left behind a trail of blood that was spilled not only in the rivalry for power between the ruling and the opposition parties, but also in the bloody conflicts between Communist Party of India Marxist – CPI(M) and Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), both partners of the ruling Left Front. This provokes me to raise questions about the very premise of decentralisation on which the PRIs have been contemplated. A closer look at the rural polity of West Bengal reveals that the apparent success in PRI functioning in the state has indeed accompanied by a greater division among the rural people, leading to bitter rivalry among them and most shockingly, pitting poor against the poor in a society where poor people had a long legacy of united struggles on the basis of the class line. In fact, the class-based polarisation of the rural people has been obfuscated to a great extent since the ascendancy of Left Front in power and the subsequent rejuvenation of the PRIs and instead a party-based division appeared to rule the rural polity where one’s party identity has become most crucial for his/her life and livelihood.

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Bloody Elections
A visit to the Dhuri area of Basanti block in South 24 Parganas district just before the last panchayat elections revealed that several supporters of the RSP party, one of the Left Front constituents, had been evicted from their houses by marauding

Partha Sarathi Banerjee (psb3210@yahoo.co.in) is an independent social science researcher based in Mumbai.
Economic & Political Weekly EPW

cadre of the CPI(M), the leader of the Left Front. One of those evicted RSP supporters commented that he would be able to return to his village along with his family only if the RSP could regain power in the local gram panchayat (GP). The RSP supporters complained that that area had been a RSP stronghold for decades and the CPI(M) had taken control over it just before the 2003 panchayat elections and captured power that year by driving out and terrorising RSP supporters. Since then people had to support the CPI(M) and could not dare to openly rally behind the RSP as the crucial panchayat power was with the former. Since last few months before the 2008 panchayat elections, the RSP supporters began to regroup in the area once again and were trying to consolidate their support base among the people to “recapture” the power from the CPI(M). In the process, one RSP supporter had been killed and several families uprooted by the CPI(M) goons in pre-election clashes, as alleged by the RSP supporters. This was the scenario just before the panchayat elections in 2008 and on May 14, the day of elections four people died in that area alone in one of the bloodiest fights between the RSP and the CPI(M) with three of them from a single family of a RSP candidate Rampada Handar. The next day a RSP minister’s house in Basanti was allegedly bombed by CPI(M) goons killing the wife of the minister’s nephew inside the house. A woman member belonging to the minister’s family told reporters on May 19, “None of our husbands can come home. We are living in constant fear of CPI(M) attacks” (The Times of India, May 20, 2008). How have the partners of the same Left Front engaged themselves in such a bitter struggle over panchayat power? If this could happen between two Left Front partners, one can imagine the situation where the ruling and the opposition parties are locked in contest for panchayati power in the rural belt of West Bengal. But the main concern must be focused over the fate of the much-trumpeted decentralisation of power in a situation where the parties fight so bitterly for the panchayati power. And that too where supporters of two Left Front parties, both

june 14, 2008

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the non-partisan masses) have been effectively kept away from the process of decision-making and enjoyment of political power. The nature of the projects implemented through the PRIs has also been beneficial to the ruling party in subverting them to fulfil its narrow party interests.in BECOME A LIFE MEMBER OF NBT BOOK CLuB AND AVAIL 20% DISCOuNT june 14. it is just another centre for party power in the state.net. but the vital aspect of people’s participation in these bodies is found to be missing” [Bhattacharya 2002]. The party is self-critically aware of it. the CPI(M) consolidated its organisational power in the countryside. 5. She also concludes that “the people (i e. Moitree Bhattacharya has found in a study that 90 per cent of the electorates interviewed in Raghunathpur in Hooghly district and 80 per cent interviewed in Jogram in Bardhaman district “showed absolute lack of interest in the panchayat’s activities”. The schemes of distributing doles and relief through panchayats have not been quite instrumental in the decentralisation of power to the people. the struggle for panchayati power had repeatedly turned into struggle for exclusive hegemony of a single party on an area and noticeably.in Website: www.in Mumbai: Telefax: 91-22-23720442 e-mail: nbtindiamumbai@yahoo. Even the names of the members of different beneficiary committees were a priori decided by local party committees and the party usually packed those people’s committees by its members. The principal reason behind the degeneration of the PRIs has probably been the intention of the highly centralised ruling party to control power at the grass roots and utilise the local power to enhance its organisational strength in the rural belt. In the 1988 panchayat elections. but the victim of its own political problematic” (ibid). activists and supporters. Harihar Bhattacharya has observed [Bhattacharya 1998] the operations of the CPI(M) in its strongholds in Bardhaman and Hooghly districts and found that all the major decisions of the panchayats were taken beforehand by a party subcommittee and presented in the formal panchayat meetings as the “pradhan’s (chief’s) proposals”.nbtindia. Such panchayat practices rendered the common people discouraged and apathetic. 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly 18 . RECENT ARRIVALS FROM NBT Baba Kharak Singh Mohinder Singh The Akali Movement Mohinder Singh Abbas Tyabji Aparna Basu Rs 40 88pp Rs 35 94pp Rs 45 86pp Selected Short Stories of Jainendra Kumar Compiled by Pradeep Kumar Translated by Ravi Nandan Sinha Rs 70 147pp Medieval India: The Study of a Civilization Prof.org. Phase-II New Delhi-110 070 Delhi: Telefax: 24526174 e-mail: nbtindia@ndb. INDIA Plot No.4 per cent from scheduled tribe (ST) communities (ibid). 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A survey of the social composition of gram panchayat members from eight districts elected in 1993 shows 38. “panchayats have failed to become the centre of people’s power. This is not the first time and the only place where two Left Front parties were engaged in bloody struggles over control of panchayati power. On the contrary. There is no doubt that the introduction of the PRIs has enhanced the participation of the marginal farmers and backward social groups in the power structure. For the last 30 years such struggles have been recurring time and again and the junior partners of the Left Front seemed to be at the receiving end in most cases as we witnessed in Basanti. these institutions for local self-government fell into the quagmire of party control and party rivalry. these battles for supremacy had in most cases been fought between the CPI(M) on the one hand and the other LF partners and the opposition parties on the other. All the political parties active in the organised domain of India are highly centralised where instructions and power flow from top to bottom and not the other way round.commentary known for deriving support from the backward communities. “58 per cent of panchayat members were poor peasants or agricultural labourers” [Human Development Report 2004]. It is no wonder that the opposition to land acquisition in Nandigram finally turned into a long and bloody battle for hegemony over the vast tract of land between the ruling and the opposition parties. But subsequently as the principal ruling party. The left parties seem to have the most systematic way of conducting state institutions to ensure that party interests are served the best. Many researchers of contemporary West Bengal have argued that excessive party control over PRIs have damaged the potential of these institutions to turn into “local selfgovernments”. Thus. have to engage in life and death struggles to retain or recapture panchayati power.5 per cent of them being from the scheduled caste (SC) communities and 7. Evidently. Bhattacharya concludes.vsnl.

according to the Human Development Report 2004. for example. apart from personal corruption.6 per cent in 1987-88 to 49. Notes 1 “NSS data indicates that the proportion of landless rural households in West Bengal increased from 39. In the process. Rather it tries to satisfy its own supporters even when they are better off than others. are meant for individual beneficiaries.8 per cent in 1999-2000”.44 per cent of the total cultivators in 2000. Bhattacharya. Sonar Bangla? Sage Publication. a tenant requesting a loan from his landlord. having high stakes in the panchayats and deeply divided over party affiliations. Thus the sacrosanct institutions of panchayat have turned into tools in the hands of the power-mongers to mobilise rural people in their quest for more power and ultimate supremacy in the state politics. Harihar (1998): Micro Foundations of Bengal Communism. 2008. Moitree (2002): Panchayati Raj in West Bengal…. Thus the battle to gain supremacy in state politics degenerates into prior battles to capture power in the panchayats. and thus supported them in fulfilling their leadership role. Williams. Delhi. according to Human Development Report 2004. was the use of panchayat funds to secure political support: a general complaint of all villagers not belonging to the faction of the panchayat member was that all development money was being directed exclusively to the member’s friends and supporters…it was only the politically well connected that benefited” (ibid). willingly or unwillingly. published by BAES. burning houses. as the latter is crucial to clinch electoral victory in the vast countryside that finally determines who will rule the state after the next assembly elections. rural people are readily divided between two groups.1 these benefits crucially affect vast majority of the rural population. He also observes that “more subtle than such outright theft [of panchayat funds]. pp 179-80. villagers were using a ‘language of claims’ equivalent to that used by. are drawn in these battles and become victims of party-led violence. 2008 19 . References Bhattacharya. Notwithstanding the process of democratisation in the rural society initiated by the PRIs. Glyn (1999): ‘Panchayati Raj and the Changing Micro Politics of West Bengal’ in Roogaly Ben et al (eds). it is seen as a distributor of personalised benefits [Williams 1999]. The rural subalterns. In fact. As the condition to get panchayat benefits primarily depends on the proximity of a person with the party in panchayati power. West Bengal government. people tend to rally behind the local rulers.commentary such schemes have helped in the growth of a donor-receiver relationship between the party in power and the people at large. any development work a member undertook became highly personalised: rather than fulfilment of an objective set of criteria. As the benefits distributed through the PRIs. But the party cannot satiate the demands of all the deserving people as the funds are generally meant for a few. Subsequently almost all the parties coming to panchayati power follow suit. published by the government of West Bengal.3 Finally. May 3. Such requests are indicative of the way in which the whole panchayat system is viewed by many: rather than being an institution in which they actively participate. one receiving favours and benefits from the panchayats and the other being discriminated against. This phenomenon is keenly observed by Glyn Williams. these institutions seem too vulnerable to fall victim to party bias (in some other state it may be caste or class bias). raping women and what not. i e. 3 Quoted by Rajat Roy in ‘Endemic Hunger in West Bengal’. such practice of patronising a party’s own support base by blatant (mis)use of public funds has been somewhat legitimised during the long Left Front rule. the obvious trend in a highly politically-divided society would be to utilise panchayat funds to cater to the supporters of the party in power in a particular panchayat. The benefits distributed through the panchayats have been significant to the lives of the rural poor and considering the vast number of landless and marginal farmers and prevalence of hunger in the Bengal countryside. Manak Publication. New Delhi. In the rural polity of West Bengal. and more commonplace. The political usurpation of panchayati power by the party may be more fatal than the economic usurpation of panchayati funds as evident in the case of West Bengal. 2 These communities comprise more than threefourths of the state’s rural population who constitute “the three poorest groups in rural Bengal”. the tool for the decentralisation of power seems to have turned into its opposite by helping centralisation of power instead. but not a single beneficiary was from below poverty line (BPL) category though the project was specifically designed for them. fight against each other and kill their class-brethren. The mariginal farmers (owning land below 1 hectare) are estimated 80. comprising principally the socially backward SC-ST and Muslim communities. particularly the backward sections of it. The Great Paradox This style of functioning of the ruling left parties in West Bengal vis-à-vis the panchayats seems to a great extent responsible for the tension in the rural polity over the control or capture of power. New Delhi. june 14. This is significant in that by requesting help from their (panchayat) members. they turn into fighters for this or that party. it was seen by potential beneficiaries as help especially by those among the labouring classes. Ajanta Books International. So much so that the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) audit report mentioned a case where 774 gram panchayats in West Bengal spent Rs 2. the greater becomes the power of the Economic & Political Weekly EPW party controlling the panchayats to influence the lives and livelihood of the people. except funds meant for infrastructural development works. more the funds are being spent through the PRIs.4 million on building houses under Indira Awas Yojana in 2002-03. according to District Statistical Handbook. Also. Economic & Political Weekly. So the non-receivers of such benefits wait for the next panchayat elections to get rid of the present ruling party and bring another party in running power that would look after their interests. The control of development funds for Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (JRY) and Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) schemes gave (panchayat) members a degree of economic influence beyond that of most landlords.2 It is perhaps a great paradox in the Bengal experience that more the power is decentralised to the panchayats. That is why the people in the traditional stronghold of RSP in the Basanti area turned towards the CPI(M) once the latter could capture power in 2003 and regrouped against the same party before the 2008 panchayat elections. The political parties contending for state power in West Bengal have high stakes in the capture and control of such power.

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