Watch Nidhi Razdan: West Bengal's elections marred by bloodshed Video Credit: Gulf News

In India the results of West Bengal’s bitterly contested and bloody local body elections came out this week, with an expected resounding win for the ruling Trinamool Congress in almost every district.

In a boost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) however, even though it came a distant second, the saffron party has emerged as the clear main opposition to Mamata Banerjee, while the Left-Congress alliance was at third place.

According to reports, nearly forty five people died in poll related violence across the state in the month leading up to the polls. Nearly 20 people died on polling day itself on July 8.

More than the results, it is the process that has marred this election in Bengal and made headlines. It has been marked by violence and intimidation that has not been seen in decades, something which should have no place in a democracy.

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Violence casts a shadow

Even on the day of the results on July 11, violence was reported from several districts. Some of the reports are downright bizarre. For instance, according to Anandabazar Patrika, one TMC candidate realised he was losing to his CPM rival by just four votes. So he ate the ballot papers that could prove the margin.

This includes workers from the Trinamool Congress, the CPM, and the BJP. Reports suggest that, many of the Trinamool’s workers may have been killed in intra party rivalries. Such is the level of violence. Polling day last week was held under the shadow of widespread reports of booth capturing and even attacks on several presiding officers.

Police officers stand guard along a road in Bhangar area on the outskirts of Kolkata on July 12, 2023, following West Bengal's local post-poll violence Image Credit: AFP

What the current bloodshed in Bengal shows is that this culture of thuggary is deeply entrenched and that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Its very much like the bad old days of the Left front’s rule in the state, decades that went down in history ridden by bloodshed and violence. The play is the same, only the actors have changed. The Indian Express newspaper had some detailed reports about the kind of political intimidation that was visible in Bengal in the run up to polling.

Their reporters documented how the TMC was using every means available, including barricades and their cadre, to prevent opposition candidates and their supporters from moving about on polling day.

However, the TMC denies this and claims it directed its cadre to ensure violence free polls.That has certainly not happened.

Tainted electoral process

This is of course not the first time Bengal is seeing political violence of this kind. Strong arm tactics, intimidation, violence, booth capturing- this was the hallmark of many elections in India of the 1960s and 70s, especially in states like UP and Bihar.

All of this has put a huge taint on the electoral process and even the results. The fact that the High Court had to order central forces to be deployed for these elections is a testament to the sorry state of affairs. What is worse is how long it took for those very forces to be deployed properly in time for the polls.

In the last panchayat polls held in 2018, the Trinamool Congress was accused of intimidation by the opposition then too, with allegations that opposition candidates were not being allowed to even file their nominations. As a result, 34 per cent of the seats were uncontested.

The violence in Bengal’s political process has a long history and complex socio economic reasons for it. Unlike many other states, the panchayats (local bodies) in Bengal wield plenty of clout.

Significant powers have been devolved to them over the decades and therefore they have a huge influence in how state politics plays out as well. A history of a strong rural peasantry when added to the mix, has made rural politics a minefield.

People come out in large numbers to vote in panchayat polls, even more than for the Lok Sabha election. For political parties in the state, these elections give a strong sense of which way the political wind is blowing, which is why the stakes are so high.

Sadly, the bloody polls have overshadowed everything else this time.