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Defying Lok Sabha equations, enemies turn allies to control Bengal panchayats

Aug 17, 2023 08:28 PM IST

In sharp contrast to the raging INDIA vs NDA debate, BJP’s elected candidates have even supported Trinamool Congress (TMC) in several rural bodies in West Bengal

A month after the July 8 West Bengal panchayat elections that were marked by arson and around 60 deaths in phases, the arch enemies in state politics are making news by joining hands in some districts to take control of panchayat boards for which they fought each other -- just days ago.

The recently held West Bengal panchayat polls were marred by widespread violence. (HT photo)
The recently held West Bengal panchayat polls were marred by widespread violence. (HT photo)

In Bengal, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has set a target of winning 35 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2024 -- it bagged 18 in 2019 -- the party’s workers and leaders at the grassroots have joined hands with the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), their principal adversaries at the national level.

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Also, in sharp contrast to the raging INDIA vs NDA debate, BJP’s elected candidates have even supported Trinamool Congress (TMC) in several rural bodies.

In the state’s three-tier panchayat system, there are 63,229 gram panchayat seats, 9730 panchayat samiti seats and 928 zilla parishad seats.

TMC bagged more than 60 % of the 73887 seats across all three tiers in 20 districts. In Darjeeling and Kalimpong, the remaining two districts, there are two-tier panchayats since there is no zilla parishad in the hill region.

Except for Murshidabad and Malda, the districts where Muslims are in majority, and also East Burdwan, an erstwhile CPI(M) bastion, BJP has won almost twice as much gram panchayat seats won together by Left and Congress in 17 districts.

The process of forming the panchayat boards started around two weeks ago. It neared completion on Monday and Wednesday when the “sabhadhipatis” (heads) of most of the zilla parishads, the highest among the three-tiers, were sworn in.

Murshidabad has so far witnessed some of the most unexpected post-poll alliances.

In the district’s Jiaganj sub-division, the BJP’s elected members at Bahadurpur gram panchayat voted in support of two Congress members to get them elected as the head and deputy head of the board.

In a similar manner, the BJP, Congress and CPI(M) members got into an alliance against TMC to take control of Harua panchayat in Murshidabad’s Suti area.

In another instance, BJP and Congress members of Chaitanyapur gram panchayat got elected as head and deputy head of the board because TMC members stayed away from the voting process.

Also Read: West Bengal rural poll violence: 6 more killed, death toll reaches 48

Arguing in favour of an all-opposition alliance against TMC in Bengal, Shankharavh Sarkar, president of the BJP’s Berhampore organisational district in Murshidabad accused state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of not taking a firm stand against the ruling party.

“The Opposition could have established control on some more panchayats in Murshidabad. At Manindranagar and Bhakuri gram panchayats, BJP and Congress won more seats than TMC but Congress helped the ruling party form the boards by staying away during the process (of forming alliances),” Sarkar told HT.

“Congress is helping TMC although its workers were attacked by the ruling party. If Congress wants to honour the INDIA alliance in Bengal, let it say so in public. Chowdhury’s anti-TMC statements are an eyewash,” Sarkar added.

Chowdhury refused to comment on the outcome of the INDIA alliance in Bengal but Koustav Bagchi, one of the spokespersons of the state Congress, publicly said on Monday that his party workers will never accept any understanding with TMC under instructions from their national leaders.

“We refuse to become guinea pigs in the interest of Delhi. TMC was a party of thieves in our eyes and will remain so. We will always see TMC as a party that has killed democracy,” Bagchi wrote on an official social media page.

Political enemies have come togerther in some other districts as well including East Midnapore where BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari defeated TMC chairperson Mamata Banerjee at the Nandigram assembly seat in 2021, forcing her to stand for -- and win -- a bypoll in Kolkata to continue as chief minister.

At Muhammadpur gram panchayat in Nandigram area, BJP members voted in favour of TMC’s Sheikh Habibul when he was elected head of the board. In a seeming reciprocal gesture, TMC helped a BJP member grab the post of the “upapradhan” (deputy head) of the same board.

Habibul, the son-in-law of Sheikh Sufiyan, who was the chief minister’s election agent in 2021, was not the TMC’s first choice for the panchayat pradhan’s post.

“The question of Habibul becoming the pradhan with BJP’s support does not arise. TMC enjoys majority in the panchayat. BJP had no option but to support him,” said TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh.

In West Midnapore district, TMC formed board at a panchayat in Debra area with support from elected CPI(M) members while in East Burdwan district, BJP supported the election of a TMC panchayat pradhan in the Galsi area.

In South 24 Parganas, the opposition parties got together to stop TMC from taking control of two gram panchayats in the Kulpi and Mathurapur areas of the district.

At Tehatta in Nadia district, BJP, Congress and CPI(M) helped an independent candidate become the panchayat pradhan to keep the TMC out.

Bengal BJP’s chief spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya argued that his party’s workers at the grassroots decided to support TMC or other opposition parties in view of the ground realities in those regions.

Bhattacharya said: “Probably they thought it would be wise to support lesser evils to stop bigger ones. Our party sees these as aberrations. One has to bear in mind that mandates in many areas were influences by infighting in the TMC. Many disgruntled TMC workers contest as independents, leading to a split in votes.”

Asked what compelled BJP workers to support Sheikh Sufiyan’s son-in-law in Nandigram, Bhattacharya said: “It is related to the chemistry in local politics. Our party cannot intervene everywhere but we are keeping a strong vigil on these developments. Action will be taken accordingly.”

CPI(M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty also admitted that his party’s workers have formed alliances with TMC and BJP in some areas although the Congress is the Left’s official ally.

Chakraborty said: “Such instances have taken place. We take measures when our workers defy the party’s directives but you will find that there are areas where even the Left-Congress alliance fell apart due to local reasons. There are areas where BJP joined the Left and Congress to keep TMC at bay. There are also some panchayats where TMC joined us to stop BJP.”

TMC state vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar alleged that some of his party’s elected candidates were bought over by the opposition.

“BJP and Left weaved a rainbow alliance to form some panchayat boards because opportunism is the key word. They are done with ideology. They are using money power to get the support of TMC panchayat members. But all this is happening at the grassroots. It will not have any impact on state-level politics.”

Majumdar argued that BJP, Congress and Left are supporting TMC in several panchayat boards only to remain close to the party in power.

“Be it gram panchayats or panchayat samitis, aligning with the ruling party helps some people deliver what they promised to voters,” Majumdar said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Tanmay Chatterjee has spent more than three decades covering regional and national politics, internal security, intelligence, defence and corruption. He also plans and edits special features on subjects ranging from elections to festivals.

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