BARRACKPUR: I’ve just been in a rural part of West Bengal’s Barrackpur constituency hearing devastating criticism of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose Left Front government has run the state for 32 years and is now being challenged in the general election by a local alliance of the local Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, and the Congress Party.
I have heard many allegations in the past about how the CPI(M) uses rough undemocratic tactics to fix elections, but have not before had a chance to learn first hand about the way that local people say its cadres control the state.
I spent three hours walking yesterday with Dinesh Trivedi, a veteran politician who is standing as a new Trinamool candidate in Barrackpur, a suburb of Kolkata (Calcutta) which has had a CPI(M) MP for 19 years.
Trivedi has decided that the best way to campaign is to walk – despite the 40 degrees C midday heat – through the streets and village roads and paths so that people, who say they have previously been too scared to vote, gain courage from seeing a friendly candidate. There was no sign of any CPM(I) canvassing, though the party’s banner was painted on a massive number of rural walls.
As word of our approach spread, women and men came out of their houses to the roadside to tell us they have been scared to vote in elections – echoing what we had earlier heard in a local town.
“Will I be able to vote?” asked Kiran Ghosh. “For the last many years we have not gone because when we go and put one foot inside the voting booth, the officials says your vote is cast, go away, so we come back home”.
“My [grown up] children don’t go to vote because they will be beaten up,” said Rekhi Ghosh, an elderly scheduled caste woman.
“They usually come at night a few days before voting and threaten us if we go to vote,” said Abdul Razzak. “They say they will cut you in two if you vote – and they poison the water”.
According to these and other stories, the CPI(M) has used such tactics to scare the poor into submission for many years. In the 2004 general election, local police guarded the voting booths as they have done for years – and the police are run by the CPI(M) state government, which meant that voting was blocked. The situation improved in 2006 state assembly elections when central police forces were present at all Barrackpur’s 1,328 voting booths, and it is intended that this should happen this time.
“If you don’t bring central protection here, there is no point in us trying to vote,” said Jayanta Chowdhoury, explaining that the Harmad Bahini – the CPI(M)’s militia – have check posts near some polling booths and turn back voters.
Trivedi has researched voting records and says he has found that faked voting has been rampant, despite India’s modern electronic voting system. “We searched the internet and then went house to house and have found 8,000 duplicate votes,” Trivedi said, showing me 47 pages of records with double entries against names and electronic voting numbers for over 8,000 of the 1.1m electorate.
Also evident on my walk was the Left Front government’s appalling record on infrastructure and basic services. Village roads which should be made of concrete, were rough, unmade and potholed. A scheduled caste village had no electricity, even though it was adjacent to a village road and was not in a remote but just 60kms from the centre of Kolkata.
This is an area that has suffered heavy job losses as old jute, textile and engineering factories have been run down and closed. There is also huge potential for the development and agricultural and allied businesses.
But the Left Front government seems to have done nothing. This supports the opposition’s claim that the CPI(M) is primarily interested in maintaining its hold on the state, and is not interested in development and care for the poor – a subject I shall return to in a few days with a broader based column on West Bengal and the general election.
This post is also on the FT.com India Election page – http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ee0e2608-330d-11de-9316-00144feabdc0,dwp_uuid=950714d0-12eb-11de-9848-0000779fd2ac.html