Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hooghly on the eve of the Panchayat elections


A CLEAR MESSAGE FROM SINGUR NO CONTEST Uddalak Mukherjee travels to poll-bound Hooghly to find out what it takes to silence a politically conscious electorate

After an hour’s drive along Delhi Road, I saw the first signs appear near Chinsurah. Party flags — mostly red and green-and-white — hung from electricity poles. The names of candidates and symbols were painted in bright colours on the mud walls.
It was a busy dawn in Chinsurah. The women walked briskly towards the market; men were already in the fields. Cloaked in the busyness was a kind of anticipation. People chatted animatedly, newspapers in hand, huddled in front of smoky tea stalls. Vans and rickshaws had been fitted with loudspeakers. It must be the polls, I thought. The panchayat elections are scheduled on May 14 here.
I wasn’t visiting Chinsurah. I was headed for Arambag and Singur, places that go to the polls on the same day. The markers of a democracy — the buntings, poll graffiti, slogans — kept me company along the highway. Not for long, though. They disappeared — as suddenly — as we entered Arambag. The briskness of Chinsurah had given way to a stifled, unnatural calm in this block. It was difficult to believe that the polls were then only a few days away.
National Election Commission observers have reported a number of uncontested seats for the elections to the gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads. The contestants, allegedly from the ruling coalition, will win unchallenged, primarily because the Opposition has failed to put up candidates. In West Bengal, Hooghly, West Midnapore and Burdwan have traditionally had the largest share of such seats. This year, the tally —2,762 seats in 10 districts in the first two phases — has, reportedly, climbed down from 7,000 five years ago.
An uncontested seat should, theoretically, be an aberration in a democracy. But such exalted thinking has no place in a political system that has legitimized intimidation and terror as tools to secure power. A fair election is an anomaly here, much like everywhere else in India. This was evident from the data on a government website that was handed over to me by a helpful colleague in Chinsurah. It showed that in 2008, in Arambag, 191 gram panchayat seats have been declared uncontested out of a total of 196. For panchayat samitis, the figure is 42 out of 44. The poll results in 2003 were no less astounding. That year, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) won 259 of the 299 seats across all three tiers. The Communist Party of India won 34, and the All India Forward Bloc won six. The combined Opposition haul was zero.
Arambag has set a disturbing trend over the years. What I wanted to find out was how the system works, and what it takes to silence a politically conscious electorate. The task proved to be particularly vexing, simply because it was easy and difficult at the same time. There was no doubting the political intimidation. Most of the people I met in Arambag were unwilling to talk. Opposition leaders, while blaming the CPI(M) for the santrash (terror), pleaded helplessness when I asked them to arrange a meeting with the victims of such intimidation. A Trinamul Congress leader, who sat smoking alone in his dingy office, said that such a meeting would put lives at risk. Later, I got to hear of Chabita Malik from someone else. Malik, I was told, was contesting despite the threats from the cadre. But then she stayed far away from where I was, and I was running out of time.
To get to the truth, I tried another line. Calls were made to local Left leaders to see what they had to say. They did not say much, except that they were busy campaigning. I marvelled at their commitment. Given the lack of a contest, why did they have to work this hard, I wondered.
Two despairing hours later, I met Ashok Patra. It was a chance meeting, and one that took me closer to the unseen terror. Patra and his wife had decided to fight on a TMC ticket. Neither could submit their nomination papers though. A zonal CPI leader told Patra that his five- bigha plot would be confiscated if he were to contest. His school-teacher brother would also lose his job. Political intimidation is ever changing, just like politics itself. It is no more about using force. The threat to one’s land, or job, in a poor, agrarian society works much better.
Would he fight the elections again, I asked him. Patra, who had seemed tense all this while, was suddenly calm. “Ebar to holo na, kintu porer bar lorbo (I couldn’t contest this time, but I will fight the next polls).” “Amar poribar aar jomir jonno (For the sake of my family and my land).” Some people remain unconquered, even in the face of utter hopelessness.
This is not to say that intimidation is the Left’s monopoly. I soon discovered that every political outfit is keen to replicate this model wherever possible. We travelled to Pursurah next, near the Burdwan border, past a sand-covered, snaking Damodar. In Pursurah, the Trinamul Congress has put up 105 gram panchayat candidates this year. In 2003, the number was five. I got to speak to Pervez Rehman of the TMC, at the shoddy block development office. Rehman attributes the rise in number to his party’s improved organizational skills. A bearded man, Rehman’s colleague, waits for him to leave for the meeting with the BDO. Then, he declares that he wished the Maoists were here to teach the comrades a lesson. He, like many others, refuses to recognize in his democratic choice the means to bring about change. Violence begets a mindset that can only understand, and reciprocate, in a similar language.
It was almost evening and I was on the road again. This time, towards Singur. The chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, was scheduled to address a meeting at Kamarkundu. I was not alone on this journey. The road was clogged with vehicles — rickety buses and tractors draped in red — full of cheerful people. It felt nice to be back among chatty, garrulous men and women. Even though they belonged to only one party.
About 15,000 people had gathered at the venue, most of them from neighbouring Khanakul, Goghat and Jangipara. There was a railway station nearby and I could hear the trains. Speakers took turns at the mike. A woman next to me slept, an ice-lolly dangling from her open mouth. A boy was selling posters: a grim Lenin, an even grimmer Jyoti Basu and a beaming Anil Biswas.
Finally, it was Bhattacharjee’s turn to speak and the crowd turned attentive. While the others were belligerent, Bhattacharjee spoke caringly, like an elderly man speaking to his brood. He reminded the audience that the panchayat was the creation of the Left Front. Yet, it belongs to the people, all of them. I am suddenly reminded of Ashok Patra, and his troubled face.
The panchayati raj has revolutionized rural Bengal, said Bhattacharjee. There are now new roads — did he miss the potholed stretch that lay close to the Expressway? — and midday meals in schools, empowered women running cooperative societies and increased food production. For a moment, I feared that Bhattacharjee was never going to stop. But a sudden, shrill train whistle cut him short, though only briefly.
He resumed speaking: about America, farmer suicides in Maharashtra, India’s dwindling food production and the promise held by Tata Motors. He ended some time after six. Even as the crowd thinned out, a local leader on the dais, a nonagenarian, reminded the people to cast their vote in favour of the Left Front. His voice was not threatening, but steely and impassive. His tone made me uncomfortable. Later, as the car moved slowly through the departing crowd, I heard a tap on the window, followed by a voice that said, “Thik thaak likhbi kintu (You better write your report correctly).” The voice wasn’t menacing. But it did not speak in jest either. This was just another memorable way of delivering a message.