Bengal Panchayat Election, 2023: Results await HC hearing next week

Panchayat elections trends suggest BJP may lose 10 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal

People are queuing at a polling station in West Bengal's 'Panchayat' or local elections, on the outskirts of Kolkata, India, on July 8, 2023 (Photo by Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
People are queuing at a polling station in West Bengal's 'Panchayat' or local elections, on the outskirts of Kolkata, India, on July 8, 2023 (Photo by Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

NH Digital

On Thursday, 13 July, the website of the West Bengal State Election Commission was yet to post the official results of the three-tier panchayat election held on 8 July. The counting was conducted on 11 July after repolling was held in 697 of the 61,636 booths.

The delay has been caused because of the Calcutta High Court’s decree that the results would depend on its decision on the three petitions related to the election. The petitions, filed by BJP, Congress and left leaders allege widespread violence, rigging and manipulation of the electoral process. A division bench of the High Court headed by the Chief Justice expressed its displeasure at the role of the state election commission and the state police. The bench expressed its apprehension that its directions issued since 13 June had not been followed in their entirety.

The bench asked the SEC and the state government to file their rejoinders by Monday, 17 July and has fixed the matter for hearing the next day on 18 July. It also asked the SEC to preserve video records of the violence at booths and ordered the police to lodge an FIR for each of the 42 people killed in poll-related violence, 18 of them on the polling day itself.

The division bench of Chief Justice T.S. Sivagnanam and Justice Hiranmay Bhattacharyya, which had earlier directed the SEC to seek central forces to man the booths, also ordered to video record the post-mortem examinations. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee meanwhile has announced a compensation of Rupees two lakhs for the kin of each of the deceased and a job in the Home Guard for one of the family members.

For the 63, 239 Gram Panchayat seats, AITC had fielded 61,591 candidates, BJP 38, 475, CPM 35,411 and the Indian National Congress 11, 774 candidates. After 80 per cent of the counting was over, media reports quoted SEC sources confirming that AITC had won 35 thousand seats, BJP around 10 thousand, CPM around three thousand and the Congress 2.5 thousand seats.

Significantly, as many as 1,656 AITC rebels were also declared victorious. Five years ago in 2018, AITC had won 34 per cent of the panchayat seats unopposed. This time the percentage of uncontested wins for AITC is apparently much lower. There was also greater resistance to AITC’s muscle power this time, which is reflected in the higher death toll. AITC claimed that out of the 18 people who were killed on the polling day, an overwhelming majority were its supporters.

The sweeping results of the 2018 panchayat election was overturned in 2019 Lok Sabha election, when BJP won an unprecedented 18 seats in the state for the first time while AITC had to be content with 22 of the 42 seats. This time too, experts warn, it would be risky to extrapolate panchayat election results to project the result of the Lok Sabha election in the state in 2024.

However, if the trend in this year’s panchayat election is repeated, some of the observers have pointed out on social media that AITC appears to be on course to win as many as 30 Lok Sabha seats and the BJP around eight. Congress and the CPM have held their own in Muslim dominated Murshidabad and Malda and improved their position.

In the Lok Sabha polls next year Congress could win 2 to 3 seats judging by the party’s performance in the panchayat poll. The bad news for the Left, believe these observers, is that while the CPM is likely to increase its vote share in the Lok Sabha election, it will find it difficult to win and open its account. But then nine months in politics is a long time and a lot can change to affect the outcome in 2024.

In the panchayat poll, AITC has done unexpectedly well in BJP strongholds like Cooch Behar, Dinajpur and Alipurduar. It has also retrieved lost ground in Matua-dominated areas like Kalyani and Bangaon. Matuas, who had overwhelmingly voted for the BJP in 2019 and the 2022 assembly elections, appeared more divided this time and less enthusiastic in voting for the BJP despite Matua strongman Shantanu Thakur being a union minister.

The hearing before the High Court next week is likely to witness an exchange of charges and counter charges between the BSF IG, designated by the court as the coordinator of central forces in the state, and the SEC. While the SEC has been complaining that not only was its demand for 897 companies of central forces for the election disregarded and provided only 660 companies, central forces arrived during the last hours of voting. The BSF IG in turn has retorted that the SEC had not informed him of the list of sensitive booths, a charge that SEC denies.

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Published: 13 Jul 2023, 2:25 PM