Last week, West Bengal witnessed elections for seven local bodies across the state. The outcome was woefully one-sided. The Trinamool Congress led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee won control of all the seven bodies. Its candidates won in 140 wards, and of the opposition parties, the BJP won in six and the Left Front won a solitary seat, that too courtesy the Forward Bloc. The one mighty CPI(M) drew a complete blank, as did the Congress.
The tally of votes was even more startling. Trinamool Congress secured 67.9 per cent of the 5.76 lakh votes polled. Its nearest competitor was the BJP with 18.7 per cent. The Left Front polled 7.5 per cent vote and the Congress 2.6 per cent. Compared to 2012, when these bodies had last voted, the Trinamool vote jumped significantly: from 45.3 per cent to 7.3 per cent in Durgapur, from 46.3 per cent to 84.7 per cent in Haldia, from 46.6 per cent to 69.2 per cent and from 39.5 per cent to 60.1 per cent. Only in Dhupguri in North Bengal, did its vote share increase modestly from 46.9 per cent to 48.8 per cent.
In normal circumstances, such a resounding victory should have been the occasion for yet another mass rally and a bout of boisterous celebrations. Curiously, this did not happen. Even the Bangla daily newspapers, otherwise gung-ho supporters of the Chief Minister, were remarkably restrained and reported the victories in a matter of fact way.
Frankly speaking, even the most ardent supporters of the Chief Minister were embarrassed. It is one thing to register a conclusive victory but the scale of the triumph left even the Trinamool supporters squirming. The day of the polling had witnessed all-round violence. There were loud charges of all-round intimidation and “vote loot”, even as the police and the State Election Commission remained mute spectators. According to some Trinamool leaders I met, there was not even a semblance of voting in places such as Durgapur and Haldia. In Haldia, a local body the Left had won in 2012, the Trinamool control over the EVMs was total. The Telegraph, a newspaper that is now an avid supporter of Mamata’s bid to forge Opposition unity, reported (on page of its Saturday edition) that in Ward 17 of Haldia, held by the Left in 2012, the Trinamool candidate secured 99.3 per cent of the vote (4,923 of the 4,958 votes) and its CPI(M) secured just 32 votes. In last year’s state Assembly election, the Left candidate led by 400 votes in this ward.
It is not for me to pronounce on the authenticity of the results.. The State Election Commission has said the elections were free and fair and must have some basis for saying so. I guess we have no alternative but to treat its findings as being more authentic than the various videos that were doing the rounds of the social media.
Violence, intimidation, booth capturing and telling voters to stay at home have been facets of electioneering in Bengal for long. The Left was often accused of ‘scientific rigging’ by its opponents during the three decades it was in power. The term implied that the derailment of free choice was carried out with clinical efficiency and with little outward show. This was in contrast to the Congress that bulldozed its way in the 1972 election, held shortly after the country’s victory in the Bangladesh war. The Congress would have won that election in any case. The rigging was to ensure that the CPI(M) was completely decimated. Its prominent leaders, including Jyoti Basu, lost that election by huge margins.
Although the local body elections held last week were on a much smaller scale, the comparisons with the 1972 Assembly poll isn’t inappropriate. In all likelihood, the Trinamool would have won control of most of the local bodies, including Haldia and Durgapur. The reason is that the Opposition is in disarray. The Left has collapsed completely and the BJP, the new number two party, isn’t still in a position to mount a concerted and effective challenge, except in small patches. By going for an over-kill, Mamata has created the base of a backlash that will surely manifest itself sooner rather than later.
There are many lessons from this exercise in Soviet-style democracy. First, it is clear that the administration of Bengal has been completely subverted. Secondly, thanks to Mamata’s special relationship with the local media, the Trinamool’s excesses will not be highlighted. Indeed, it will be subordinated to the larger cause of anti-Modi-ism. Thirdly, the decline of the Left will continue unchecked and more so since there is an obvious contradiction between Sitaram Yechuri hobnobbing with Mamata at the national level and the Comrades fighting a battle of survival in West Bengal. Finally, a strategy based on slow, organic growth is unlikely to fetch the BJP any returns in the near future. Unless, like in Assam, the BJP succeeds in breaking a chunk away from both the CPI(M) and the Trinamool, West Bengal is destined to live with Mamata’s flights of whimsy.
The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha