The more things change

Panchayat elections in West Bengal frame the same old politics of coercion and intimidation

As always, panchayat polls in West Bengal have left a trail of violence across the state. At least five people were killed as the polls entered their fourth phase on Monday, taking the total toll in these elections into double digits. For a state that is said to have gone through poriborton two years ago, when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's TMC crushed the Left Front in the assembly elections, things look remarkably familiar. In the last panchayat elections, held in 2008, the CPM had won 13 out of 17 zilla parishads and about 7,000 seats unopposed. Several people were killed, as belligerent CPM cadres armed with pipe guns and crude bombs, patrolled villages, threatening non-CPM supporters away from the polling booths. Reports of booth capturing and jamming were rampant. In 2013, political fortunes may be reversed as pre-poll surveys predict a rout for the CPM and the Congress and a sweep for the TMC, which is set to win about 6,500 seats unopposed. Yet violence in the state has not abated, it has merely changed colour.

This time, it was the leadership of the TMC that spoke of "beheading" opponents, reportedly prevented rival candidates from filing nomination papers, and incited mobs to violence. Murshidabad district, once dominated by the Left and the Congress, and Burdwan, a Left bastion, have seen some of the fiercest battles. Motorcycle rallies, one of the most menacing images of Left Front rule, have now been appropriated by the TMC, in defiance of a ban on such rallies imposed by the state election commission and reinforced by the Calcutta High Court. By all accounts, the party of difference has inherited the same old culture, and made it its own, with some help from footsoldiers of the Left who defected to the TMC after 2011.

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