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The CPI(M) 'Machinery' in West Bengal: Two Village Narratives from Kochbihar and Malda

Although the left parties are to a large extent responsible for the democratic changes that have taken place in rural West Bengal, power remains concentrated in the ruling elite and modifications are required for democratisation to become meaningful. This paper suggests a model for understanding how the Communist Party of India (Marxist) "machinery" functions to secure electoral power and ideological hegemony for the left regime, especially at the panchayat level in everyday village politics. The protean capacity of the party allows changes at the local level in pragmatic ways, serving incompatible interests without being seen as different formations. The CPI(M) is clearly adept in formulating different strategies for different tiers of the panchayat system, calibrating their rivalries. Two village narratives help explore these aspects.


The CPI(M) ‘Machinery’ in West Bengal: Two Village Narratives from Kochbihar and Malda

Rajarshi Dasgupta

Although the left parties are to a large extent responsible for the democratic changes that have taken place in rural West Bengal, power remains concentrated in the ruling elite and modifications are required for democratisation to become meaningful. This paper suggests a model for understanding how the Communist Party of India (Marxist) “machinery” functions to secure electoral power and ideological hegemony for the left regime, especially at the panchayat level in everyday village politics. The protean capacity of the party allows changes at the local level in pragmatic ways, serving incompatible interests without being seen as different formations. The CPI(M) is clearly adept in formulating different strategies for different tiers of the panchayat system, calibrating their rivalries. Two village narratives help explore these aspects.

Rajarshi Dasgupta ( is at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

uch of the power of the Left Front in West Bengal is based on the villages. Land reforms have played a well known role here followed by growth under the panchayat system, which has entered a phase of decentralisation. Understandably, the left and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (hereafter CPI(M)) want this decentralisation to take place in a manner that strengthens their hegemony in the countryside. Indeed, in the past scholars have appreciated the left’s mobilisation as instrumental for democratic change in the state (see Kohli 1987). Of late, however, their hegemony has shown a tendency to hold back democratic change and frustrate effective decentralisation, as power remains concentrated in a ruling elite.1 There is, of course, a set of new institutions and a new level of local democracy emerging, but its leadership is vulnerable to capture by the existing elite, in the manner suggested by Pranab Bardhan and Dilip Mukherjee.2 There must be other changes for decentralisation to become meaningful in the power shares of the society, with chances of regime change beginning to open at the grass roots level. Yet, it is equally true that not only is there no effective opposition to challenge them, but the CPI(M) also has the best o rganisation or “party machinery” operating in rural Bengal. It is likely that this “machinery” will successfully contain the new spate of decentralisation, provided, of course, it survives the challenge of industrialisation and the decline of agrarian surplus. This paper tries to suggest a model for understanding how this CPI(M) “machinery” functions to secure electoral power and ideological hegemony for the left regime, especially at the panchayat level, in the everyday village politics.

1 Introduction

The study of politics at the grass roots has become necessary due to a number of factors at this point. The imperative to deepen democratic practices and to adjust at once to the tempo of globalisation has changed the framework of village politics considerably. While there have been questions if villages are witnessing a fundamental transformation, opinion is divided on the direction of changes and how democratic is this democratisation (Gupta 2005; see also Heller 2000). Estimates vary with regard to the nature of the emerging political economy and how much if at all state interventions are required, and what policies should be adopted.3 With the new emphasis on the panchayati raj institutions (PRI) to deliver pro-poor development, village politics has become the crucible of electoral democracy and the latest ground for ethnographic studies of governance in south Asia.4 It is evident that the peasant is shifting from a community location,

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as pointed out by Partha Chatterjee (2008), but we are yet to comprehend how this will impact the nature of popular politics and the Indian state. Do we see the peasant knocking on the door of equal citizenship in a real sense? Can the panchayat system, disconnected from other representative bodies, be relied to realise this prospect?5 Need the peasant enter a form of mobilisation like the “political society” to negotiate with citizenship?6 In the long run, do these lead to the urbanisation of rural India? These are the larger issues and questions in the background of any study of village politics, which inform us too. Needless to say, we cannot answer them on the basis of this very limited study, but let us draw attention to certain aspects useful to engage the larger perspective.

Core Questions

Our study of the two villages – Sitai in Kochbihar district and Uttar Harishchandrapur in Malda district – comes at a point when the panchayat system faces urgent questions in West Bengal. Some of them directly inform the research we have carried out. Assisted by Partha Mukherjee and Akhtar Ali in Sitai and Anirban Seth and Tania Goldar in Uttar Harischandrapur, we geared the fieldwork towards the locally significant changes, e specially related to PRIs, over the past decade, with globalisation in the background. The research made use of anecdotes and unstructured interviews with data available on the area’s development and electoral system, to focus, among other things, on three central questions. First, is the panchayat system in West Bengal started before many other states ready to admit new s egments of the rural society in decision-making? Is one witnessing a new form of local governance and grass roots democracy? Conversely and second, has the panchayat become too narrow and bureaucratic to perform the task of democratisation owing to the domination of a ruling alliance? Does a regime change a ppear necessary in order to put the panchayati raj back into a democratic track? These lead to a third question, stated at the beginning. Despite its recent failure to acquire agricultural land for i ndustrialisation, why does the CPI(M) continue to be hegemonic in the countryside? How does it secure this consensus and where do other parties fall short of resources? Although there are other issues to be pursued, these questions remain at the core of our study. Apart from discussing the changes in demography, economy, social r elations, political culture and the local institutions, we primarily focus on how the CPI(M) conducts politics in the villages. How does the “party machinery” operate at this level, with regard to the PRIs and with regard to the social inequalities and discrimination? Who are the segments standing on the threshold of decisionmaking process, and how are they managed by the ruling elite?

The two villages present contrasting cases. Though both have a majority of scheduled caste (SC) population, they could not have differed more in terms of economy and politics. Indeed, their contrast provides the setting to highlight the different kinds of strategies, electoral alignments and political shifts taking shape in the West Bengal today. Let us note that this difference denies a generalisation in terms of one simple strategy to explain the advantage of the left and CPI(M) over their competitors. It would be futile to test a mutually exclusive hypothesis, like either “clientelism” or “good governance”, for making sense of the CPI(M)’s

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politics, which is often a combination of these and more elements. Hence, let us not try to box the practical manoeuvres into a predecided strategy. Instead, what can be highlighted is the flexibility that marks the manner of doing politics at the grass roots, by the ruling left and by the CPI(M) in particular, as the important aspect. This emphasis goes against the popular impression of the ruling party in West Bengal as a rigid, centralised organisation, whose every step is determined after a strict principle by the top leadership. The picture to follow avoids such narrow interpretation of the moves and countermoves under scrutiny. Instead, we suggest that such moves can be better understood in the light of a managerial political culture – a manner of governance similar to the ethos of a business association, pressed to the service of p olitics. This, we submit, is the key advantage of the CPI(M) over others, especially the non-left parties.

The Contrasts and Commonalities

Let us return to the contrast presented by the two villages. Sitai, in the district of Kochbihar lies right on the border of India and Bangladesh. It has become economically stagnant, with its former agricultural surplus drying up, and the area being unable to use the benefits of the panchayat system to push its development process ahead. This region has long been a well-known stronghold of the CPI(M)’s partner, the All India Forward Bloc (hereafter AIFB or Forward Bloc), ever since the left came to power. Along with other opposition parties, the Indian National Congress (hereafter INC or Congress) has a weak presence here, whose members have switched loyalties to the left in the recent decades. This has now set the stage for a bitter rivalry between the dominant AIFB and the ascendant CPI(M) in the area. Contrary to the alliance at the state level, this rivalry sets the tone for much of the politics in Sitai.

The village Uttar Harishchandrapur in Malda district presents a completely opposite picture. There are clear signs of globalisation, with new commercial and structural transformations taking place across the region, led by a new cross-section of professionals and entrepreneurs, and a surplus assisting the process of development. Uttar Harishchandrapur has been the stronghold of the INC, where certain individuals enjoyed key roles in running the establishment. This trend of political leadership vested in a few charismatic individuals has of late witnessed a decline. The parties on the left, including the AIFB and the CPI(M) have contested this style of politics for more than a decade here. As a result, they have come to match the strength of the INC of late, but only as a combined force. This has created the conditions for a more genuine collaboration between the Front partners. The elections in this area are marked by rapid swings, with close competition and alternating ruling power.

These differences notwithstanding, there are important features common to the villages. They provide a larger picture of the economic trend and of the institutional transformations. There is the phenomenon of outward migration to far-flung places, countries, and metropolises across the population in the two villages. It is unclear to what extent this migration is the result of poverty of some sections and how far it is linked to the upward mobility of the well-off. The two cannot be disentangled in terms of motivation. But whether or not the fruits of d evelopment have reached the area, there is no mistaking the sense of new aspirations triggered by the mobility of goods and persons in either case. At the same time, there is a common social and institutional shift, brought about by the quota-based reservation, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the selfhelp groups (SHGs), especially with regard to making women take important part in the public spheres of village life. Their impact is too significant to miss in the larger picture. In particular, women from the lower castes and the Muslim community are clearly emerging as new set of agents in the political spectrum, pushing the balance of power in the two villages. Linked to their rise are activities reorganising access to credit and economic decision-making, which are not always limited to the PRIs. However, this promising feature is both promoted as well as restricted by carefully calibrated moves of the left parties, who work to harness it to their cadre base.

Finally, there is the superior professionalism in the way the left parties operate in both villages in comparison to their competitors. The opposition sometimes appropriates the left’s rhetoric and its former style of militancy. This is obvious, for example, in the case of the Trinamool Congress (TMC). But what makes the CPI(M) really distinctive is the complexity, sophistication and systematic way of functioning that does not depend on the charisma of individuals among its cadre or leaders. The party can be ultimately projected, to borrow a term from the market, like the most successful “brand”, where politics means a steady job and upward social mobility.

2 The Village Narratives

The party has the flexibility to reorganise its priorities with the changing needs of a local setting. Yet, it can maintain a larger identity, showing a competence that is more technical than ideological, which recalls the efficiency of its “machinery” above everything. The village narratives will help us to explore these aspects in more detail.

2.1 Sitai, Kochbihar

There are 53 villages in the Kochbihar district under the Sitai block, which has a total area of 151.25 sq km, a total population of 96,335, with 49,196 males and 47,139 females. There are five gram panchayats (GPs) under the Sitai block, namely, Adabari Ghat, Brahmattar Chhatra, Chamta, Sitai I and Sitai II. The village named Sitai falls under Sitai I GP. It is located on the southwestern tip of Dinhata subdivision, standing right on the border of India and Bangladesh, which runs alongside the river Malda passing through the area. On the other side of the border is Lalmanirhat district of Bangladesh. There is a prominent water-body called Shingimari bil in the area, fed by a tributary of the river Jaldhaka. The village Sitai is located five km away from Sitai bajar, which is the busiest area in the locality, housing a police station, several shops, and offices including that of the block develop ment officer (BDO) and block land reforms office (BLRO). According to the 2001 Census, the village Sitai covers a total area of 622 hectares, with a total population of 4,365 and 954 households, of which 4,122 are SC and a small number of scheduled tribe (ST) people. Roughly, 85% of the population are Hindus and 15%

72 Muslims. No less than 60% of the Hindus have migrated from Bangladesh, both before as well as during and after the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. Nearly 90% of the villagers have relatives living across the border. Traffic in human and goods, legal or otherwise, is fairly common to these parts, making the border at once both menacing and porous. Apart from occasional incidences of harassment by the Border Security Force, a serious difficulty with the border involves the cultivation of plots owned by the families living on opposite sides. There are gates along the length of a barbed wire fence erected about 135 to 225 metres away from the riverbed, which allow people to cross over, but only for an hour in the morning, noon, and afternoon everyday. Although it has actively brought down the number of robberies and theft, especially that of cattle, the border fence has made life quite difficult for most of the ordinary and poor people in the village.

Social Infrastructure

There are approximately 3,350 voters in the village, distributed into four booths during the polls. There are two primary schools, two shishu shiksha kendra (hereafter SSK), three anganwadi centres in the village, and a madhyamik (secondary) school in Sitai bajar as well as two colleges in Sitalkuchi (30 km away) and in Dinhata (40 km away) respectively. The nearest health centre is located in Sitai bajar; and the village has two quack doctors. There are two local clubs – Binapani Sangha and Bhratri Sangha. The most active NGO in the area is Spandan, which has created several SHGs among the women of the village. Electricity is available in some patches, mostly belonging to the economically welloff and politically powerful sections. Few villagers care to admit that untouchability still persists in small pockets where the SC rabidas (cobblers) (who migrated from Bhojpur in Bihar) reside. Inter-caste romance and marriages are said to be gaining acceptance, yet practical examples are often to the contrary, and dowries are by and large essential to arranged marriages.

Most villagers are cultivators. Some combine it with fishing and daily labour. The major crop is aman – high yielding variety of swarnamashuri, B-411, etc, while jute, and more importantly, tamak (tobacco) is the main cash crop. Tobacco is sold across the border as well. However, the margin of profit in tobacco has dropped significantly of late. A new source of income had emerged with boro cultivation using a high yielding variety – china dhan, with the help of shallow irrigation. Yet, the surplus from agriculture has been generally drying up. The local youths increasingly migrate to work in brick kilns and as contract labour in Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Assam, Meghalaya, or even in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, mostly as masons and security guards. There are a small number of fishermen, who have migrated from Bangladesh. The biggest chunk of the population – nearly half – belongs to the landless and marginal peasants, with many excluded from the below poverty line (BPL) list. During the peak of the cultivating season, the daily wage rate is fixed around Rs 50 plus refreshment, which may vary from Rs 30 to Rs 40 plus refreshment at other times. Significantly, the women contribute substantially to agricultural labour, though their wage rate is Rs 5 to Rs 10 less than that of the men. The latest trend is for men and women to team up and cultivate plots under contracts. The

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lowest common indicators of the economic mobility under the Left Front are taken to be the shift from hay-bamboo roofs to tin roofs across the entire village, and to some extent, the general appearance of the cultivators in trousers rather than in gamchha (loincloth). Incidentally, the out-migration of local youths is seen both as a source of remittance earning and relative prosperity as well as a proof of poverty, corruption and the scarcity of livelihood at home.

There is a mythical history about the place circulated by the “Griter” (the newly formed “Greater Kochbihar Peoples’ Association”) supporters emerging of late, while there is also a modern version of the area’s history, relating the progressive social r eforms initiated by a local personality, Panchanan Barman. Widely revered as Thakur Panchanan, a lawyer-cum-social r eformer, he apparently gave the Rajbangshi self-respect: by starting upanayan (sacred thread ceremony) among the Rajbangshi; by fighting against caste prejudices and untouchability; by fighting for women’s education and bringing them into the public domain (he created a militant group of women, called “dangdhari ma”); by denouncing the communal divide; and recognising the R ajbangshi as Kshatriya in the late colonial years. There is a bronze statue of Thakur Panchanan, besides a bridge and a local school – Panchanan Smriti Vidyalay – being named after him.

Electoral Politics

The AIFB, which is an ally of the Left Front, has been the predominant party in the region. Its emergence as a major force here took place during the food movement and other mass movements led by the left in the 1960s. Bijay Ray, the leader of these movements in Sitai, was elected for the first time as the local member of the legislative assembly (MLA) in 1963. However, Fajle Haq of INC defeated him in 1967, and became the minister of state for home in the cabinet of the Congress chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray. But Dipak Sen of AIFB wrested the seat back in 1972. Ever since the Left Front came to power in 1977, the AIFB has been the leading party in the area, and the formerly dominant Congress has steadily waned losing much of its former political influence. There was an interruption in this political pattern in 1997, as Kamal Guha, a powerful leader of the AIFB, split the party and formed the new Samajbadi Forward Bloc, supporting the formerly Congress candidate Fajle Haq who was denied ticket that year. As a result, Haq defeated the AIFB candidate.

In 2001, the AIFB candidate Nripen Ray managed to win back the seat. But Fajle Haq once again contested as the Congress candidate in the 2006 assembly elections and is currently the MLA from the region. Interestingly, the results of the 2008 panchayat elections show that the Bahujan Samaj Party has managed to gain some foothold in the area for the first time. However, the most significant political feature in the region is a bitter rivalry between the AIFB and the CPI(M) gathering steam in recent years. Serious clashes have taken place in the Chamta village neighbouring Sitai, where the two parties are effectively running neck-to-neck. Their rivalry has been fuelled by the fact that a large number of the former INC leaders and their supporters are now defecting to join either the AIFB or the CPI(M) in the area. It seems the CPI(M), so the local leaders claim, is gradually gaining

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the upper hand in this rivalry. This is most certainly the case in the village under study. However, the reversals suffered by the CPI(M) in the latest panchayat elections, arguably due to the state government’s policy of land acquisition, along with a recent incident of firing on the AIFB supporters in Dinhata, have put a brake on the trend, at least for some time to come. Before we discuss the political moves in this rivalry and more generally the everyday politics in Sitai, some comparative data on the panchayat elections in the area needs to be examined. This will give us a broader frame to make sense of the political changes and subtle adjustments that are taking place in the Sitai village.

A cursory look at Tables 1 and 27 will confirm that whatever the changes taking place, they have not yet been able to influence the picture at the zilla parishad (ZP) level. This could be either due to the localised nature of the transformations or the result of being carefully kept out of sight, which is understandable in the case of the CPI(M)-AIFB rivalry. The picture changes dramatically however at the level of the panchayat samiti (PS). Both Kochbihar I and II show how the AIFB has gained significantly at the expense of the CPI(M) recently, especially in the aftermath of the Dinhata firing. Interestingly, this change is slightly contradicted by the results of the Sitai block given in Table 2. Nevertheless, the results of the GP level reveal a complex story unfolding in Sitai I, which includes the village Sitai, and in Sitai II. While the AIFB can be seen commanding the entire vote share of the left in Tables 3, 4 and 5 (p 74), the data in the Tables 6, 7 (p 74) and 8 (p 75) show how it is being challenged by the CPI(M) and that it is striking back.

The contest between the CPI(M) and AIFB is highly conspicuous especially from the data given in Table 6. The Forward Bloc can

Table 1: Zilla Parishad Elections (Kochbihar 2008; 2003)

Zilla Parishad Total Seat Declared AIFB AITC BJP BSP CPI CPI(M) INC IND NCP RSP

Kochbihar 2008 29 29 8 1 0 0 0 19 1 0 0 0

Kochbihar 2003 26 26 7 0 0 0 0 18 0 1 0 0

Source: See Note No 7. Table 2: Panchayat Samiti Elections (Kochbihar 2008; 2003)

Panchayat Samiti Name Total Seat Declared AIFB AITC BJP BSP CPI CPI(M) INC IND NCP RSP Other LF

Kochbihar-I 2008 43 43 13 5 1 0 0 15 4 5 0

Kochbihar-I 2003 43 43 3 1 2 1 28 1 6

Kochbihar -II 2008 39 39 3 6 2 0 0 22 5 1 0 0 0

Kochbihar -II 2003 38 37 1 2 0 0 0 29 4 1 0 0 0

Sitai 2008 15 15 10 0 0 0 0 2 0 3 0 0 0

Sitai 2003 14 14 11 0 0 0 0 1 0 2 0 0 0

Source: See Note No 7. Table 3: Gram Panchayat (Sitai 2008)

Sitai 2008 Gram Panchayat


Adabari 15 15 8 0 0 0 0 7 0 0 0 0

Brahmattar-Chhatra 16 16 10 0 0 0 0 5 0 1 0 0

Chamta 17 18 5 0 0 1 0 8 0 4 0 0

Sitai-I 12 12 9 0 0 1 0 0 0 2 0 0

Sitai-II 11 12 9 0 0 1 0 2 0 0 0 0

Total 71 73 41 0 0 3 0 22 0 7 0 0

Source: See Note No 7. Table 4: Vote Share in Sitai 1 (2008)


Votes 605 1114 6,984 86 48 25 4,774

Percentage 4.436785 8.169551 51. 21737 0.630683 0.352009 0.183338 35.01027

be seen losing much of its ground in Sitai I, formerly its strong-panchayat elections. So far as Sitai village is concerned, the hold, but gaining strength in Sitai II, formerly the CPI(M)’s AIFB has largely been able to maintain its upper hand. But our stronghold. There is a corresponding loss for the CPI(M) in Sitai II study very strongly suggests that the CPI(M) is a rising force in

but there is no evident matching gain in Sitai Table 5: Vote Share in Block Sitai (2003) the village and there is growing disgruntle-
I. That is the case because the damage to the Party Votes Perecntage ment with the AIFB, which has become synon-
AIFB is being wrought by independent candi- Left Front 72, 965 51.17 ymous with an establishment doing very little
dates supported by the CPI(M). This is borne INC 15, 480 10.86 to improve the conditions or deliver better
out more clearly in Table 7, which shows the nature of the contest much more directly. TMC Others 22, 062 32, 075 15.47 22.50 governance. The increasing feeling in some parts that the AIFB needs to be displaced has

The CPI(M)’s rise in these parts show clear signs of long and careful preparations. The Kochbihar ZP was entirely with the AIFB until 1983, when the CPI(M) slowly began taking it over. Ever since, the CPI(M) has expanded and consolidated its power in this district. At present the AIFB is practically said to have influence only over Dinhata and Mekhliganj subdivisions. We need to bear in mind that out of the 128 panchayats in the region before the 2008 elections were held, the CPI(M) controlled 80, the INC 10 and the AIFB had 38. Out of nine MLAs in the region, the AIFB had five and CPI(M) had four. It was suggested by our respondents that the AIFB enjoys one additional seat because the CPI(M) concedes it at the state level. But there are many areas where the organisation has effectively passed into CPI(M) hands, although the AIFB wins the seats. Although the CPI(M) had only one GP as against four of the AIFB in this block, the CPI(M)’s tally in a total of 80 panchayat seats increased from 17 in 1998 to 37 in the 2003

Table 6: Panchayat Election Results – Sitai Block (2003)

Total Voters: 69,496, Polled: 63,089, reserved seats 55

AIFB 42, CPI(M) 13, IND 27

1 Adabari gram panchayat, CPI(M) 3, AIFB 7

2 Sitai-I gram panchayat, (Sitai village is under this panchayat)

Total voters: 9,780, 8,448 polled,

CPI(M) 0, AIFB 11, IND 3 (2003, 14 seats)

[CPI(M) 0, AIFB 9, IND 2, BSP 1 (2008, 12 seats)]

3 Brahmattar Chhatra gram panchayat, AIFB 9, CPI(M) 1

4 Chamta gram panchayat, AIFB 11 CPI(M) 1 (Chamta has maximum no. of seats 20) 5 Sitai-II gram panchayat

Total voters: 10,980, 10,184 polled,

CPI(M) 8, AIFB 4, IND 1 (2003, seats 13)

[CPI(M) 2, AIFB 9, BSP 1 (2008, seats 12)]

Table 7: Panchayat Election Results – Sitai I and Sitai II Gram Panchayat (2003)

in fact led some formidable INC leaders of the area to recently join the CPI(M). The pattern can be recognised from the subsequent composition of the panchayat boards in Sitai village.

As we can see, apart from a brief interlude in the early 1990s, the INC has remained rather insignificant in the panchayat electoral politics of Sitai, along with the other non-left parties. Apart from the goodwill of land reforms, the major advantage that left enjoys over such parties in Sitai is the clear impression of having a more efficient and democratic political culture. The biggest trouble with the INC here is its identification with largely conservative values, along with a lumpen tendency of its workers and elitism of its leaders. In contrast to such unsocial behaviour, the left have introduced new forms of social practices that have successfully replaced the older undemocratic ones. For example, unlike the INC period, no trial-based bichar (juridical exercise) is practised anymore. Instead, the left has introduced the salishi as an informal mode of arbitration. As we know, the party functionaries mediate whenever a bibad (controversy) crops up, and offers a mimangsha (solution) potentially acceptable to both the parties. People are, however, free not to accept the solution and approach a court of law.

Interestingly, the disciplined cadre-base of the left parties, e specially that of the CPI(M), enjoys a highly professional and corporate image. What their opponents even admire in the left style of functioning, as our respondents frequently remarked, is the systematic manner. If there is some work to be done, for example, a meeting is swiftly held among the cadres and a committee is quickly formed accordingly inside the village. Thereafter that committee carries the necessary accountability. Such impressions generate the sense of joining the left as a desirable career – the ap

propriate company to seek employment, in a sense. This

partly explains why there has been an overwhelming

Sitai-I Sitai-II

Narendra Nath Ray AIFB Chhattar Miah, IND (defeating Abjal Hossain Miah AIFB) trend among the educated sections formerly loyal to

Anowar Ali Miah AIFB Rousana Pramanik CPI(M) (defeating Chhakina Bibi, AIFB) the INC to join the left of late. Apart from the Con-

Aloka Barman AIFB Kanchi Bala Barman AIFB Ambika Barman CPI(M) Tapan Barman CPI(M)
Dhiren Barman AIFB Bhabendranath Barman CPI(M) (defeating Subhash Barman AIFB)
Rajani Kanta Ray Sarkar AIFB Maya Barman CPI(M)
Namita Barman AIFB Bina Ray CPI(M)

gress leader Anil Ray who joined the CPI(M) recently, there are Surath Ray Pramanik, the former INC block president, who joined the AIFB five years ago, the INC leader Sarat Barman, who joined the AIFB 10 years ago, and the INC leader of the Sitai block, Bholanath Barman, who joined the AIFB five years back.

Gita Ray AIFB Sarat Chandra Barman AIFB Subhash Adhikary IND Dhiren Barman AIFB Sunil Ch Adhikary AIFB Ruhida Das AIFB Political Choices However, our research also shows that there are ob
(defeating Anjali Barman AIFB) Chandana Barman IND (defeating Arati Barman AIFB) Kamini Barman IND Arati Barman AIFB viously other, more pragmatic and sometimes purely instrumental, reasons for some people joining the left or CPI(M), which have little to do with politics in some
(defeating Niranjan Basunia AIFB) ideological sense. For example, there are clearly
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m arginal segments whose pattern of political affiliation is primarily driven by despair and compulsion and certainly very little choice. Thus, Ananta Kumar Barman, a Bangladeshi migrant, explained to us that for those who migrated from Bangladesh after the Awami League leader Mujibur Rahman’s assassination, the question of political choice was very simple – related to survival, and pragmatic – related to upward mobility and thereafter

Table 8: Panchayat Boards in Sitai Village (2003)

Booth no 26: Namita Barman (AIFB) (allegedly run by her husband, Harish Barman)

Booth no 27: Gita Ray (AIFB) (allegedly run by her husband, Dilip Ray)

Booth no 28: Sharat Barman (AIFB)

Booth no 29: Subhash Adhikary (‘independent’ supported by CPI(M)).

Previous Panchayat Boards

1998 – Anil Ray (left INC to join CPI(M) with 100 supporters), Kalpana Adhikary (headmistress of the local school and wife of AIFB leader Bhagirath Adhikary), Gita Ray (AIFB), Harish Barman (independent supported by AIFB)

1993 – Gita Ray (AIFB), Birendranath Barman (AIFB), Bhabananda Barman (INC) and Anil Ray (INC)

1988 – (1 seat added): Dharanikanta Ray (AIFB), Birendranath Barman (AIFB), Sharat Barman (INC) and Bhabananda Barman (INC)

1983 – The previous two plus Birendranath Barman (AIFB)

1978 – Dharanikanta Ray (AIFB) and Panchananda Ray (AIFB)

c onsolidating that rise. At the same time, a member of the marginal Muslim fishermen segment of Sitai, Ahmad Mian, bitterly complained that, “we have become an appendage (lejur) to the sara bharat (Forward Bloc) party. We live only as appendages to the parties.” Another small peasant, Kantiswar Barman, displayed a similar sense of disillusionment, stating that, “personally, I don’t do any brand of politics. I vote because one has to vote (dite hoy di). Earlier I used to vote for the INC, later I voted for nirdal candidate, which means I supported the CPI(M). Nothing came out of doing INC. Now I am doing griter. But I don’t know what will come out of this”. There is thus also a strong underlying sense of instrumentality and pointlessness of the democratic process, despite the panchayat system, which many felt was getting paralysed by the control of powerful parties. Ananta Ray, a schoolteacher and a disillusioned CPI(M) member, summed up the sentiment in his interview with the researchers. As he said:

In a way, the people’s consciousness (chetana) has increased through the regular panchayat elections. But the key thing has become the pursuit of fiscal benefits in the panchayat system. There is little thought given to the development of the village as a whole, or what will serve the interests of the entire society. As individual interests are becoming a central concern, it is creating an environment of various kinds of conflicts. Now suppose … they include me in a committee, but my opinions are not given a hearing; if what usually takes place – whatever the leaders say become the final decision, then I will be no longer interested in the committee, this is what is natural. At the end you will find only the loyal members of that party there, like gram sansad meetings at present.

Gender Empowerment

Nevertheless, there are very clear signs at the same time of a major change in the profile of the political actors in Sitai, particularly with the entry of women in the public and economic spheres in decisive capacities. It is also a fact, of course, that such empowerment is being partly undercut by male leaders who

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are using the women as dummy figures to actually run their writ. But it is evident that the visible presence of women in the PS samiti and gram sansad activities has began to make a substantial difference in the overall decision-making process and the prioritisation of concerns, like credit facility. Particularly with respect to Sitai, the SHGs are recognised as having played a major role in this regard, with the help of some local NGOs, leading among them is Spandan. At present, there are 25 SHGs with 10 members each, with only five of them composed of men, including members from both the BPL and above poverty line (APL) segments. Some of these groups have achieved their second gradation and secured generous loans, like the Nabajagaran Mahila Samiti, which plans to build a farm for raising ducks. Kalpana Adhikary, a CPI(M) member of the panchayat, also claimed that such developments have actually led to a decline in the instances of gender exploitation and atrocities on women in the village. There is no doubt that women are increasingly taking part in public life, supported by the fact that there are now at least four to five women out of 10 graduates in the village. Besides, the number of girls studying at the local school is now roughly equal to that of boys. Romance and love marriages are becoming common and parents are accepting matches where the groom has a steady source of income.

The NGO, Spandan, took shape in 2002 with support and encouragement from Dilip Chakrabarty, an officer in the local branch of the Central Bank in Sitai. At the time of our research, there were 200 SHGs created by Spandan, out of which members of 120 groups belonged to the BPL category and 80 groups in the APL category. Aniruddha Adhikary and Sunirmal Ray, the secretary of Spandan, explained the funding mechanism operating here. The SHGs receive a “revolving fund” of Rs 5,000 from the District Rural Development Cell to begin with. Once they have made proper use of this fund, they get another amount of Rs 15,000 as a “second dose” of funding. If the group manages to use this resource judiciously, they enter the “third gradation” whereby a fund of Rs 1,05,000 is allotted to them. The attainment of this grade means the group has become selfsufficient and their members should not be seen as falling under the BPL category.

Perhaps the most telling example of the empowerment of women achieved by the formation of SHGs in a village like Sitai is the case of Nanibala Biswas. Nanibala also represents that segment of women which is most effectively spreading the CPI(M)’s influence among the grass roots here. Apart from being a CPI(M) leader she is an early SHG builder in the area. But her status is unique in Sitai politics, because of her identity as a single woman, which has been a bitter cause of conflict for long with the locally entrenched political leadership. According to Nanibala, her father Kanduram Biswas had five bigha of personal land and four bigha of mortgaged land, as he used to lend money. Nanibala managed to attend school until class eight, and she ran an adult education centre in the village for 10 years. Her father had given her 3.5 bigha of land and a tin shack, and married her off to someone willing to live with the in-laws, who later left the place. Nanibala continued to live by herself, adding two bigha more to her property after her father’s death.

But soon after, according to her, a section of the AIFB instigated people to grab her land despite the fact that she was with AIFB at the time. Around 6.5 bigha of her land was taken away, which was followed by arson and beating up Nanibala’s mother. However, at the time of the interview, Nanibala seemed to be spiritedly carrying on the fight, with the help of the local CPI(M). It is quite clear that she enjoys an overwhelming influence in the area, despite the long-drawn hostilities of the local AIFB leaders like Dilip Ray, who bluntly declared Nanibala to be a prostitute. “About twenty years ago”, Ray recalled, when he was young, “I saw (these prostitutes) were ruining the village atmosphere. It had become unfit for living. So I gathered some youths, and led assaults on the houses of these prostitutes, back in 1987”. The entire thing was done in full connivance with the police, so the harassed women had to leave the area, but with the sole exception of Nanibala. “She turned out to be a dangerous woman (sanghatik mahila) after all”, Dilip Ray admitted, “It is difficult to quell her. She has set fire to her own house and registered a case against our boys.” Dilip Ray’s bitterness towards Nanibala can be seen as a symptom. It highlights the shift and the tension among the political actors and process that have been wrought by the process of decentralisation in Sitai, apart from revealing the internal rivalry of the left in the region. We will see that this shift, encouraged by the CPI(M) here, is not an isolated case. It resonates with what is taking place in Uttar Harishchandrapur as well.

2.2 Uttar Harishchandrapur (Malda)

The village Uttar Harischandrapur is under Harishchandrapur I, which is a community development block with a population of 1,62,369 and covering an area of 171.40 sq km according to the 2001 Census. Harishchandrapur II is another adjacent block with a population of 1,98,127. Harishchandrapur I and II are two intermediate panchayats in the north-west of Malda district of West Bengal, bordering the Kishanganj district in Bihar. The village panchayats under Harischandrapur I are Barui, Bhingole, Harischandrapur (which includes the villages Uttar and Dakshin Harishchandrapur), Kushidha, Mahendrapur, Rashidabad and Tulsihatta. The village panchayats under Harischandrapur II are Daulatpur, Doulatnagar, Islampur, Malior, Masaldaha, Sadlichak, Sultannagar and Valuka. The village Uttar Harishchandrapur has a population of 12,962 with 2,740 households, with 6,012 SC members and 1,118 ST members. It covers an area of 739 hectares. The area under the mouza of Uttar Harishchandrapur includes the villages of Haldibari, Lakhmipara, Radhanagar, Baro danga, Kalampara, Harishchandrapur and Kalipukur. The literacy rate of the area is around 70%. Roughly, 45% of the population are Hindus, 30% Muslims and 25% Santals, as per the census. About 60% of the people included in the BPL list are SC, composed of Muchi, Teor, Koch, Kaibarta, Lohar, Dosadh, Hari, Dom and Mushaher, while the STs in the area include Oraw, Santal and Mahali. Electricity reaches 80% of the people, and there are two high schools, five primary schools, one SSK and some anganwadi centres. There is a hospital and two sub-health centres nearby, but ayurvedic healers, homeopaths and private doctors are also available.

The irrigation resources are moderate, with three deep tube wells, 400 ordinary tube wells and roughly 250 shallow pumps

76 that are owned privately. The area has one warehouse, one rice mill and four brick kilns among its business enterprises. The village hat is held four days a week. As the figures above suggest, a thin segment of the local population are upper caste Hindus, with a powerful Brahmin family of Rays who were formerly the zamindar in the area. The rest of the population includes intermediary and low castes, with Bengali and Bihari Muslims and a section of Marwari traders. The Marwari traders have been enjoying considerable economic power for some time in the area, trading and stocking foodgrains brought from nearby villages like Mahendrapur, Rampur, Daulatpur, Bitol, Bangrua, Hardamnagar, Mitna, Sonakul, Sultannagar, etc, and managing their transport to Kolkata and other places. There is a layer of petty entrepreneurs arriving from the nearby villages. They run a good number of small enterprises like brick kilns, rice mills, bidi factories and retail outlets for chemical fertilisers. Finally, there is a growing section of new professionals, like many schoolteachers, who have migrated from other areas and have now settled down in Harischandrapur. While the majority of these professionals are CPI(M) supporters, the majority of local upper caste Hindus are still loyal to the traditionally dominant INC. The other major parties here are the AIFB, the TMC and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI). There is a faint trickle of support growing for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Significantly, there has been no incidences of communal flare-up apart from stray incidences. There are many cases of inter-caste and inter communal marriages, which of late are cited as examples of the social progress. Yet, by and large, the women get lower wages than men, and the thana records show a rise in cases of against women. The CPI(M) c andidate and the previous GP pradhan in this village is a woman, although, it is her husband here who actually runs the show.

A Changing Society

Uttar Harishchandrapur now increasingly resembles a budding town, with a relatively fast growing economy that is somewhat similar to the pattern of development in the areas like Gajol, Shamsee, Ratua, Kaliachak, Bamangola, etc, in the Malda district. Uttar Harishchandrapur has a host of economic activities and businesses including warehouses, rice mill, brick kilns, bidi factory, etc. Besides, retail trade is carried out in the hat (village market) held on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of every week. The major agricultural products are rice, mango, home brewed l iquor, fish, makhna, jute, as well as potato, cauliflower, cucumber, maize, coconut, etc. Makhna is chiefly grown here as a cash crop. The irrigation is primarily dependent on the shallow pumps and both organic and chemical fertilisers are used in cultivation. Unlike Sitai, the other village under study, Uttar Harishchandrapur appears to enjoy a reasonable degree of surplus. The signs of globalisation are difficult to overlook in this budding town. A wide range of consumer goods is readily available here. Fashion and conspicuous consumption show quite clearly among the young and the upwardly mobile people. While young girls can be often seen in jeans, the young boys sport latest motorbikes and glossy mobiles, dressing up like their favourite television stars.

Perhaps the best indicator is the change in the customary c haracter of the weekly hat – where flashy food stalls and cheap

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manufactured goods are gradually beginning to overtake the competition for power between the INC and the Left Front in the t raditional fare of livestock and vegetables. Similarly, a new crop area, whose respective strength has grown equal in recent years. of trekkers, jeeps and buses are increasingly replacing the older Significantly, this is what reverses the political equation between rickshaws and bicycle-driven vans as the chief means of transport the CPI(M) and the AIFB in this region, which cannot afford the

here. However, people appear ready Table 9: Panchayat Election Results, Block Level, rivalry they pursue in Sitai and more
to retire as early as eight in the evenings. Its proximity to the petty Harishchandrapur I and II (2003) Block Harishchandrapur I Party Votes Percentage Block Harishchandrapur II Votes Percentage generally in the Kochbihar district. At the same time, the pronounced parity
crime-prone area of Kishanganj in Left Front 39,258 53.32 42,116 51.71 of strength between the INC and the
B ihar and the influx of new popula- INC 32,545 44.20 37, 979 46.63 CPI(M) and the AIFB taken together also
tion have opened up the place to Trinamool 1,576 2.14 964 1.18 means that even a relatively small
outsiders in ways that creates inse- Others 249 0.34 391 0.48 degree of swing can lead to a major

Source: Refer note 8.

curities among older inhabitants. Of late there has been a significant outward migration too. A growing number of people from the trading sections are beginning to bring up their children in Kolkata and sending them to Delhi as well as abroad, where they seek opportunities to settle down. Among the poor, there is a trend of seasonal migration to various places in north India, which has not changed perceptibly with the recent prosperity among other classes.

Competition for Power

Interestingly, they have a proud history of their people being a part of the violent movement (for Indian independence) led by Subodh Chandra Mishra, a local freedom fighter, and by Guhiram Rajak, who was later instrumental in drawing people to the CPI(M). The CPI(M) has grown in strength in the wake of recent demographic changes and especially after the panchayat system was introduced here. However, their alliance with the AIFB has remained crucial to their bid to upset the traditional dominance of the Congress in the region. This has started paying dividends from the middle of the 1990s. Such has been the left’s rise lately that a BJP-INC-TMC alliance had to be forged to keep them out of power in the 1997 panchayat polls. The Left Front finally managed to win the panchayat here in 2003, only to lose in the latest elections in keeping with the larger trend. On the whole, the CPI(M) is far from exercising an overriding power in this area, having to work in close collaboration with the AIFB, to match the electoral strength of the formerly predominant INC. Both the neighbourhood of Harishchandrapur and large parts of the district of Malda have been dominated by the INC for many years now.

The region still carries the marks of a certain kind of patronage networks familiar to the old political culture of the Congress. Until his recent death, the INC leader and the former minister of railways at the centre, A B A Ghani Khan Chaudhury, used to play an extremely influential role in shoring up support for the Congress in the region. It also appears that politics in Harishchandrapur revolves to an important extent around some key local individuals, like Birendra Kumar Maitra, a former leader of the Congress, who joined the Janata Party and subsequently the AIFBL faction, securing in the process a favourable purchase for the left in the area. Birendra Kumar Maitra has a record of sorts of defeating the sitting MLA Abdul Wahed of the INC in 1987 and 1991, and Mostaq Alam of the INC in 1996, but he was finally defeated by Alam in 2001. However, Mostaq Alam also lost to the current MLA Tajmul Hossain of the AIFB in 2006. This regularly alternating trajectory is consistent with the extremely close

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difference in the number of seats won by the respective parties. This is amply borne out by the comparative data provided by Tables 9 to 15.8 While Tables 9 and 11 show the proximity in the percentage of votes in 2003 when the CPI(M) noticeably gained in seats, a similar disparity in the tally of seats in the latest election that favoured the INC will be evident from Tables 10, 11 and 12, which also show the nature of the swing.

Interestingly, the nature and extent of the swing varies depending on which level we are looking at. It is the least perceptible at the macro level of ZP, but it acquires a distinct visibility at the i ntermediary PS level. Eventually, as we come to the GP level, the swing appears to exercise maximum impact, although its extremities may have to do with the results of a particular year. However, the panchayat system of Harishchandrapur clearly appears to have adopted an anti-incumbency logic especially since the middle of the 1990s, with the INC and allies on one side and the Left Front on the other alternating power with every election. Table 13 shows the domination of the INC in the recent election, and Table 14, although not exactly analogous, will reveal the preponderance of the left in the previous election, especially in the Harishchandrapur I area. Finally, Table 15 provides the

Table 10: Panchayat Election Results, Zilla Parishad, Malda


Zilla Parishad Malda 2008 34 34 0 0 1 0 1 12 18 1 0 1

Malda 2003 33 33 1 1 1 0 1 14 15 0 0 0

Source: Refer note 8. Table 11: Panchayat Election Results, Panchayat Samiti, Harishchandrapur I & II (2003 and 2008)

Panchayat samiti Total Seat Declared AIFB AITC BJP BSP CPI CPI(M) INC IND NCP RSP

Harishchandrapur-I 2008 21 21 0 0 0 0 0 0 20 1 0 0

Harishchandrapur-I 2003 21 21 3 0 0 0 0 16 2 0 0 0

Harishchandrapur II 2008 25 25 0 0 0 0 0 4 21 0 0 0

Harishchandrapur-II 2003 24 24 0 0 0 0 1 17 6 0 0 0

Source: Refer note 8. Table 12: Panchayat Election Results, Gram Panchayat, Harishchandrapur I (2008)

Harishchandrapur I 2008, Gram Panchayat Total Seat Declared AIFB AITC BJP BSP CPI CPI(M) INC IND NCP RSP

Barui 15 15 0 0 0 0 0 2 13 0 0 0

Bhingole 11 11 0 0 0 0 0 1 10 0 0 0

Harishchandrapur * 21 21 0 0 0 0 0 1 20 0 0 0

Kusidha 16 16 1 0 0 0 0 8 7 0 0 0

Mahendrapur 11 11 0 0 0 0 0 5 6 0 0 0

Rashidabad 12 12 0 0 0 0 0 2 10 0 0 0

Tulsihatta 15 15 0 0 0 00 212 10 0

Total 101 101 1 0 0 0 0 21 78 1 0 0

* maximum number of seats Source: Refer note 8.

composition of the former panchayat Table 13: Panchayat Elections, Block Level, the tribal population, with very little or Harishchandrapur I & II (2008)

boards in Harishchandrapur, dominated by no access to the resources and facilities

Block Harischandrapur I, Total 101 Block Harischandrapur II, Total 113

the CPI(M) at the time of our fieldwork. offered by local governance.

CPI(M) 21 CPI(M) 23

The initial steps in the direction of social

AIFB 1 CPI 1 and economic improvement of Uttar INC 78 AIFB 8 Selective Distribution of Benefits

Harishchandrapur can be traced back to IND 1 INC 79 In terms of differential access to resources,

the reform work undertaken by the TMC 1 Uttar Harishchandrapur can be seen diz amindar family of Rays, though its results RSP 1 vided into different local neighbourhoods

did not reach too many ordinary people. or para, which serve as micro-localities,
Interestingly enough, the Rays had managed to compensate for having different levels of material prosperity and status in the
the abolition of their zamindari by getting nominated as the village. In all, there are 19 para in the area – Tetulbari, Nayatola,
pradhan of the union boards in the early INC regime. As a result, Mahuapara, Kaoamari, Blockpara, Stollolia, Ramraighat, Gorgori,
the upper caste Hindus completely dominated the village Thanapara, etc. Among these, Gorgori and Tetulbari are predomi
throughout the 1950s and 1960s. This started changing with the nantly tribal areas, inhabited mainly by the Oraw, who migrated
Left Front’s land reforms, the Bargadari system and the forma from the Rajgir hills in Bihar. The adibasi para are by far the most
tion of the GPs. The condition of agriculture impro ved wi th backward and poor ones, only growing rice and jute in very small
the Mahananda Master Plan, facilitated by the INC stalwart and plots. The general perception is that despite ruling the state the
local patron A B A Ghani Khan Chowdhury, and the subsequent CPI(M) is clearly not doing enough for them. So there is some sup
infusion of chemical and organic fertilisers in the area. This, in port in these quarters for the INC and the TMC. The access to loans
turn, improved the living standards of certain middle peasant or easy credit facilities, the grants of Indira Awas and subsidised
sections that became the primary support base of the CPI(M) in resources associated with the BPL list appear to be the key factors
the area. In recent times, the support base of the left has also in determining political support in these parts. There is a notice
expanded to include newer sections, made of petty traders, able degree of public disgruntlement about corruption, especially
Marwari businessmen and professionals who have migra ted the supporters of CPI(M) are often accused of cornering the big
from the outside. They also constitute the segment that pro ger share of BPL cards and having better access to facilities, while
vides momentum for the process of commercialisation in the the supporters of INC and the TMC allege discrimination against
area and welcome the progress associated with globalisation. them. The experience of the petty shop-owners and local vendors
However, there still exist a sizeable proportion of landless of this area appear more or less similar to this pattern. The BPL
labourers, day-labourers and the unemployed, mostly among list is frequently cited as an article of bureaucratic harassment
and a convenient carrot for the parties to extract support and ex-
Table 14: Results of Gram Panchayat Elections (2003) ercise undue influence. Sudarshan Rabidas, a cobbler, summed
Harishchandrapur- I Block, Malda up the experience of exclusion well: “I am poor. So I asked the
Total voters: 82,849 , polled: 74,937, reserved seats 64 AIFB 18, CPI(M) 70, INC 33 1 Kushida gram panchayat: CPI(M) 9, INC 6, AIFB 4 2 Boroi gram panchayat: CPI(M) 10, INC 8, AIFB 3 3 Rashidabad gram panchayat: CPI(M) 8, INC 3, AIFB 2 pradhan to give me my BPL card. She sent me to the CPI(M) party office – they sent me to the samiti – it sent me to the anchal office, and from there I was sent to the BDO office. The result is zero wherever I go.” On the whole, the resource distribution of the
4 Tulsihatta gram panchayat: CPI(M) 10, INC 4, AIFB 4 panchayat system is not perceived to be satisfactory, tying up the
5 Bhingole gram panchayat: CPI(M) 7, INC 6, AIFB 1 benefits too often with political patronage.
6 Mahendrapur gram panchayat: CPI(M) 9, INC 3, AIFB 2 Apart from the panchayat, a number of local bodies and insti
7 Harishchandrapur gram panchayat: tutions have become increasingly important to the dynamics of
(Uttar Harishchandrapur village is under this panchayat) CPI(M) 16, INC 4, AIFB 2 (2003, 24 seats) everyday politics in Uttar Harishchandrapur. To begin with, they
[CPI(M) 1, INC 20, AIFB 0 (2008, 21 seats)] include the important local clubs like the sangathan samiti. This
Source: Refer note 8. was previously a natya sabha, or a theatre club owned by the Ray
Table 15: Harishchandrapur Gram Panchayat (2003) family, who refused to let the Muslims and lower caste members
Khukumoni Das INC Bajo Oraw CPI(M) Moha Ibrahim INC Abdul Jabbar CPI(M) Arati Mahato INC Haren Ch Das CPI(M) from entering or making use of its premises. The CPI(M)’s intervention has changed that and made the club into a place for both recreation as well as political mobilisation, which is conveniently
Dulal Das INC Hajera Bibi CPI(M) located near their party office. Places like the local primary
Mangal Oraw CPI(M) Mukhlesur Rahman CPI(M) schools, the ICDS offices and PRIs constitute the other important
Deben Das CPI(M) Abdul Hai CPI(M) centres of politics in the village. Many of the school teachers are
Jagat Das CPI(M) Tajkera Begam CPI(M) directly involved with mobilising support for the AIFB and the
panchayat pradhan (2003-2008) Pravat das CPI(M) Muktar Ali CPI(M) Jashoda Mahaldar CPI(M) Ranjit Mandal CPI(M) Rubi Chakraborty CPI(M) Parul Oraw AIFB CPI(M), which they justify with an improvement in their status since the Left Front came to power. In any case, political neutrality is totally out of question for them. As a senior teacher, Anima
Rohit Das CPI(M) Bidhan Das AIFB Sarkar, remarked quite candidly, “we simply cannot survive if we
Source: Refer note 8. refuse to do politics”. Another teacher, Subrata Roy, described at
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Source: Refer note 8.


length how the teachers formerly had no respect in society owing to the low salaries, which meant they found it difficult to marry as well as marry off their daughters. Now they enjoy a certain kind of esteem before the public and earn a respectable salary ranging around Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000. Hence, they must seriously engage in both school politics and village politics, and indeed act as the “main political agents of the parties”.

Finally, like other villages in West Bengal, the formation of the SHGs has been one of the most important factors in releasing new energy for decentralisation in the area. There are now 15 to 20 SHGs in Uttar Harishchandrapur with 10 to 15 members in each group, like the Kanchan Prayash group for instance. The organisation of a similarly active SHG, like the Society-Para Kalyan Samiti, for example, has an elected sabhadhipati, saha-sabhadhipati and dalanetri entrusted with running it on a regular basis. Founded in 2004, the latter had 15 members at the time of our research, and its members had to pay roughly Rs 30 to enrol in the samiti as well as a monthly subscription. Attendance was taken to be compulsory at the samiti’s meetings and the absentees were fined in turn. Such a samiti usually carries the responsibility of preparing midday meals for the local school, which helps them to earn roughly Rs 500 to Rs 2,000 every month. There are occasional discussions on various issues like the pulsepolio programme or particular problems faced by women. Gossip is, of course, a major attraction. The members can apply for loans ranging from Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000, but large amounts are difficult to arrange at this stage. The CPI(M) has helped in founding this group and has a clear influence on its members.

Contrasting Political Styles

In keeping with the pattern we have witnessed in the case of Sitai, the CPI(M) leaders and activists appear in general to be much more articulate and informed than their competitors. Although their sway is held in check by the traditional support for the Congress here, the CPI(M) workers clearly have a better grasp over the links between panchayat politics and the issues of development and decentralisation. It helps them to connect better the question of supporting CPI(M) with that of larger improvement of the area. They insist quite persuasively, for example, that the CPI(M) has been largely instrumental in developing Harishchandrapur. The ex-pradhan, Swapan Dey, for example, describes the coming of the Left Front in 1977 as an important “turning point” especially for the Tetulbari village, which created new expectations at various levels and mobilised greater participation in the local politics.

The impression of the CPI(M) giving undue patronage is also undermined by some ex-CPI(M) members whose reasons for leaving the party turn out to be denial of expected benefits. For example, Bhabesh Das of Haldibari said rather frankly that he finally joined the INC because he did not get the benefits of electricity, BPL card, Indira Awas loan, etc, even after working very hard for the CPI(M). At the same time, there is also a section of cadres who flaunt their power as local patrons due to their position as CPI(M) members. Rahit Kumar Das, for instance, who has become party leader from a landless migrant 20 years back, clearly enjoys the role of a party-patriarch. “I am the CM”, he is

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fond of stating, “of the CPI(M) party here”. However, most leaders and members of the opposition parties appear in sharp contrast to the by and large efficient style of functioning of the CPI(M) members. The TMC anchalik president Durjay Barai, to take another example, seems confused and rather emotional about politics, which is no more than a hobby for him after retiring from a career in the local soccer team. Similarly, according to Bacchu Das, a lonely but devout cadre of the BJP, its local leaders like Chandranath Roy owns so much property that he does not need to work, but spends his time just eating and travelling. Besides, there are common allegations of corruption and horse-trading about the opposition parties, which also add to their negative image in the region. According to one respondent who played a key role in forging the INC-BJP-TMC combine that won the panchayat board in 1998, the INC MLA, Mostaq Alam, allegedly paid Rs 7 lakh to people like him to buy the required number of votes. However, they had to miserably lose the next time because their candidates proved terribly inefficient in running the panchayat administration.

Gendering of Local Democracy

Thus, there seems to be a considerable difference in the very style and language of politics between the CPI(M) and the other parties, and the INC in particular. In contrast to the CPI(M) cadres’ rhetoric of empowerment and material benefits as the real substance of politics, the INC members are found dwelling in ambiguous metaphors of tradition and domesticity. The difference becomes even sharper if we consider the entry of a new set of political actors similar to Sitai – the women leaders and workers active in the public life of Uttar Harishchandrapur. The INC ex-pradhan, Ruptara Begam, is an ideal exemplar of the contrast. “Politics is like a tree”, she remarked in response to the researchers’ queries, “I have to take care of it as my family. But I am a mother and a wife too, so I have to also look after my own house…I love the poor … the INC and CPI(M) are like step brothers.”

The difference of such a sensibility from that of a new segment of Muslim women working with CPI(M) in Uttar Harishchandrapur cannot be overstated. Dilera Bibi can be taken to be representative of such a segment, which is adding new energy to the PRIs in the village. Dilera states how the family has in fact become a critical space of political mobilisation. “My house”, she states, “is a place where politics is everywhere. My father is an active CPI(M) worker; my brothers always want to do something or the other for the party. And I have been doing politics for 12 years now. I am an active member of the Mahila Samiti, and now the saha-sabhadhipati of Society Para Kalyan Samiti (SHG). I have a house of my own and I have married for the second time.” Dilera Bibi owns and runs a pan shop and appears reasonably well off. It is important to note that like Dilera Bibi, the CPI(M) has managed to recruit a host of similarly committed activists among the Muslim women in the village, like Putulnesa Bibi, Meherunnisa Khatun and Muslima Bibi, who are much more dynamic and politically active than members of other political parties. Muslima Bibi is perhaps the best illustration of the CPI(M)’s new recruits among the Muslim women of Harishchandrapur. A popular and grass root organiser, Muslima Bibi works tirelessly like a party whole-timer, apparently because the party not only arranged for her loan, but also treated her “like a family-member”. Muslima is well known in the locality for her courageous measures to tackle the problem of alcohol and domestic abuse, especially among the men who have married more than once. She has been with the CPI(M) for 18 years, and she is now a zonal committee member. She is a key figure in creating SHGs in the area and representative of the new kind of political actors thrown up by the decentralisation process.

It is important, however, not to get carried away by such examples of empowerment of the Muslim women as the defining feature of CPI(M)’s politics in Uttar Harischandrapur. There are parallel instances where the Muslim women are also being propped up in important positions without any actual decisionmaking authority. This is especially true with regard to the onethird seat reserved for women in the PRIs, and linked to the additional importance of SHGs run by women in receiving extra benefits. The changing institutional equations have led some local party leaders to encourage their wives and daughters to form SHGs and contest the elections, only to be controlled by the men in proxy.

In fact, the most telling example of such cases in Harishchandrapur is Tajkera Begum, the previous pradhan and CPI(M) member. As everybody knows in the village, it is her husband Mohammad Yasin, who enjoys the power in reality. Tajkera was observed frequently in the course of fieldwork sitting quietly with a ghomta (veil) at the panchayat office, and signing papers entirely under her husband’s supervision. Her replies to the researchers’ questions were mechanical and most likely tutored by her husband, who also contested for the pradhan’s seat but failed to win it in 1998. There is little doubt that he was the one wielding real a uthority with regard to the decisions of the panchayat. Clearly, Tajkera was made the pradhan because the seat became reserved, but Mohammad Yasin was the de facto pradhan in this case. This example does not of course need to overrule the reality of g endering local democracy and the significance of women’s entry into village politics through reservations. It reveals, however, the unavoidable difficulties to be negotiated by the process of d ecentralisation. Besides, it brings us to an intriguing question we shall address in the conclusion. Despite having other able c andidates among the Muslim women, as we have seen, why does the CPI(M)field weak candidates such as Tajkera in the panchayat seats reserved for women?

4 Conclusions

The village narratives underscore the major trends and key a spects of village politics around the PRIs in West Bengal. It is clear that despite the depleting agrarian surplus, globalisation is creating new aspirations even in the remote corners, where our villages are located. Fostered by migration, these aspirations are setting the tone for the benefits expected from decentralisation and local democracy, particularly from the PRIs. But the panchayat is, at the same time, frequently accused of becoming narrow, instrumental and bureaucratic, due to excessive party control, by a growing section of people. The case studies support this charge, as the panchayat with the same ruling party has failed to develop sufficiently compared to the case where there has been regular change in the regime.

Even with frequent electoral changes, however, the more pressing issues of social justice are often lost to the equation of votes, patronage and immediate benefits. This has limited the reach of the panchayati raj in a direction that kishansabhas used to their advantage before. It is dangerous to ignore the dissatisfaction of the sections excluded from decision-making and effectively from suffrage, with a preponderance of the STs in this regard. The articulation of local priorities must address this segment urgently in the state, framing new policies at the level of local governance. Nevertheless, there has been a number of encouraging changes, instilling fresh energy into the project of local democracy, by expanding decision-making to some formerly excluded actors. The people belonging to the SCs, other backward classes and Muslims are clearly emerging as new agents, apart from a segment of professionals. These sections are challenging the upper caste domination in the rural society and local institutions. However, the most important fact from the perspective of democracy is the growing participation of women in the panchayat and public activities aided by reservations and assisted by the NGOs and SHGs. Despite the subterfuges involved in the process, where women are used as proxy candidates, we have examples of single women accessing political power in the face of sustained hostilities. Similar social constraints and moves of exclusion have been observed before, both in the state and cases spread across the country.9 The gendering of local democracy nevertheless remains one of the most exciting prospects unfolding in the villages. It is reshaping the figure of the peasant and village politics in a way we are only beginning to appreciate. The politics of local democracy, the practice of local governance and the meaning of citizenship must be accountable to these new actors today.

It is obvious from the above accounts that the Left Front does not present a uniform face irrespective of the context. The extent to which there will be true collaboration between the allies depends on whether any opposition party presents a bigger threat in that particular constituency. This has been illustrated well by the changing relations between the CPI(M) and AIFB in the Kochbihar and Malda districts, and the larger political dynamics in the north Bengal. The CPI(M) is clearly adept in formulating different strategies for different tiers of the panchayat system, calibrating their rivalries. Indeed, apart from their professional approach, the most striking feature is the CPI(M)’s capacity for adjustment and flexibility, accommodating widely different mobilisations, according to the change of settings. This flexibility shows a radical shift from the former kishansabha type approach to a calculative, business like sensibility, driven by an idea of modernisation, more comprehensive than what other parties offer. More

o ver, the informational capacity and managerial competence of the left cadres are of a high order, regardless of individual abilities.

In this manner, as we have noted, the CPI(M) has been able to create a successful “brand” of politics in rural West Bengal. Being in power for more than three decades, it has turned more pragmatic than ever, shedding the normative distinctions between foes and friends beyond an immediate sense of context. It can do things that a communist party could not have done before, at one

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Economic & Political Weekly

and the same time. It can lend support to former Congress lead-the face of it. This kind of machinery does not need ideological ers who want to overthrow the Forward Bloc. It can act like a fuelling but the information necessary to adjust the governance family for the socially marginalised women giving them access to to multiple contexts and expectations. This is also its vulnerable social justice. It can make use of the traditional family as a ground area. The information and communication flow must be accurate of mobilisation. Again, the party can endorse selective distribu-and uninterrupted for the machinery to distribute benefits and tion of benefits in some context. It can allow an underbelly of power smoothly. But information can be manipulated by a ruling petty corruption and crude mechanisms of coercion. Yet, it is elite entrenched in the machinery. That is when a regime change methodical enough to maintain a division of labour among its is perceived as a corrective. Nevertheless, the party machinery cadres, especially with regard to the PRIs. The overlap of the cannot be reduced to one identifiable ruling class or a set of intergovernment and the ruling party is thus maintained through a ests all too easily, because it is plugged into many social crossscreening and distribution of cadres, allocating differential access currents at the same time. It is not an entirely fluid process, but a to power and different spheres of influence. This is the reason for style of politics exercising wider legitimacy than what is possible putting up token candidates like Tajkera Bibi instead of activists with the alliance of one or two classes. Another major area of its like Muslima Bibi in the local elections. The party likes to keep its weakness is when a conflict breaks out between the compulsions resources separate and working in multiple areas to build the of electoral democracy geared to hegemony and the obligations electoral consensus, even if that undermines the institutions of of local democracy geared to social justice. The choice must relocal democracy. main hegemonic for the party machinery, which is often pressed

We suggest that the strength of such a party be understood in to its limits under such circumstances. Rather than taking clear terms of its “machinery”, which is a term common to the commu-sides on issues of social justice, the machinery is likely to “mannist rhetoric. However, the term is not used by us in the sense of a age” the conflict and co-opt the aggrieved through its patronage mechanical device, repeating actions without any judgment. It is network. This “objectivity” is what allows the larger entity called analogous to the sense of “apparatus” in discussions of the state. the CPI(M) to change at the local levels in pragmatic ways, serv-The working of the CPI(M), in this sense, can be conceived as the ing incompatible interests, without being actually seen as differinterlocking of a complex and intricate machinery, whose parts ent formations on the ground. This protean capacity of the ruling have autonomous functions, even contradictory movements on party is what the term “machinery” conveys in the paper’s title.

Notes (c) Panchayat general elections, 2003, results of World (Leonard Hastings Schoff Lectures), gram panchayat elections, Vol No 1, District (New York: Columbia University Press).

1 See in this regard, Dwaipayan Bhattacharya Malda, West Bengal State Election Commission. – (2008): “Democracy and Economic Transition in (1999). See, for a more recent analysis, Dwaipayan

9 See, in this regard, Sudha Pai (1998) and Niraja India”, Economic & Political Weekly, 43:(5).

Bhattacharya (2006), and most recently, Gopal Jayal (2006) for a comprehensive perspective. Gudavarthy, Ajay and G Vijay (2007): “Antinomies

Dwaipayan Bhattacharya and Kumar Rana (2008). of Political Society: Implications of Uncivil

2 Bardhan and Dilip (2000), Also, see in this regard,

Development”, Economic & Political Weekly, 52(29).

Pranab Bardhan (2002), and Pranab Bardhan (1984). References Gupta, Dipankar (2005): “Whither the Indian Village? Culture and Agricuture in ‘Rural’ India”, Review of

3 Two very significantly different perspectives

emerge, as can be seen Bardhan, Pranab (1984): The Political Economy of Deve-Development and Change, 10(1)

in the works of, for

lopment in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

example, Kalyan Sanyal (2007) and Amit Bhaduri Heller, Patrick (2000): “Degrees of Democracy, Some (2007, 2008). – (2002): “Decentralisation of Governance and Comparative Lessons from India”, World Politics, Development”, The Journal of Economic Perspec

52 July. tives, 16(4) Autumn.

4 See, for example, with regard to West Bengal,

Arild E Ruud (2003). See also, Dayabati Roy and Jayal, Niraja Gopal (2006): “Engendering Local

Bardhan, Pranab and Dilip Mookherjee (2000): Democracy: The Impact of Quotas for Women

Parthasarathi Banerjee (2005, 2006). 5 Niraja Gopal Jayal underscores this point in her “Capture and Governance at Local and National in India’s Panchayats”, Democratisation, 13(1)

Levels”, The American Economic Review, 90 (2), February.

introduction in Local Governance in India: Decentralisation and Beyond (2006). See also, in this – (2006): Introduction in Niraja Gopal Jayal, Amit

Papers and Proceedings of the One Hundred regard, Shirin M Rai (2007). Prakash, Pradeep K Sharma (ed.) Local Govern-

Twelfth Annual Meeting of the American Eco

nomic Association, May.

6 For detailed discussion on the concept of ‘political ance in India: Decentralisation and Beyond

society’ see Chatterjee Ajay Bhaduri, Amit (2007): “Alternatives in Industrialisation”, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Partha (2004).

Gudavarthy and G Vijay (2007) raise interesting Economic & Political Weekly, 5 May. Kohli, Atul (1987): The State and Poverty in India: The

questions about the formulation in “Antinomies of – (2008): “The Imperative as an Alternative”, Politics of Reform (Cambridge: Cambridge

Political Society: Implications of Uncivil Develop-Seminar, 582, February, pp 74-81. University Press).

ment”. Bhattacharya, Dwaipayan (1999): “Politics of Middle-Pai, Sudha (1998): “Pradhanis in New Panchayats”, 7 Sources for the data used in Tables 1 to 8. ness: The Changing Character of the Communist Economic & Political Weekly, 33 (18).

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  • 2003, Tathya O Sameeksha, CPI(M), West Bengal Growth and the Agrarian Change in West Bengal Roy, Dayabati and Parthasarathi Banerjee(2005): State Committee and Bangladesh (New Delhi: Sage). Gram Banglar Rajniti (Bengali), (Kolkata: People’s

    (c) Panchayat General Elections, 2003, Results of – (2006): “Writers’ Buidling and the Reality of Book Society).

    Gram Panchayat Elections, Volume No 1, District Decentralised Rural Power: Some Paradoxes and – (2006): “Left Front’s Electoral Victory in West Cooch Behar, West Bengal State Election Reversals in West Bengal” in Niraja Gopal Jayal, Bengal: An Ethnographer’s Account”, Economic & Commission. Amit Prakash, Pradeep K Sharma (ed.), Local Gov-Political Weekly, 41(40).

    8 Sources for the data used in the following Tables ernance in India: Decentralisation and Beyond Ruud, Arild E (2003): Poetics of Village Politics: The 9 to 15. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press). Making of West Bengal’s Rural Communism,

  • (a) Bhattacharya, Dwaipayan and Kumar Rana (2008): (New Delhi: Oxford University Press). Election% 20Results%20-%20 2008.htm “Politics of PDS Anger in West Bengal”, Economic Sanyal Kalyan (2007): Rethinking Capitalist Develop
  • (b) Paschimbanga Sastha Panchayat Nirbachan & Political Weekly, 43(16). ment: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality 2003, Tathya O Sameeksha, CPI(M), West Bengal Chatterjee, Partha (2004): The Politics of the Gov-and Post-Colonial Capitalism (New Delhi: State committee. erned: Reflections in Popular Politics in Most of the Routledge).
  • Economic & Political Weekly

    february 28, 2009 vol xliv no 9

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