Local body elections in West Bengal scheduled for July 8 have yet again brought political violence in the State to the forefront. Seven persons — they include supporters of the ruling Trinamool Congress and Opposition parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and Indian Secular Front — have died since the notification of the polls on June 8. The State Election Commission (SEC) and the West Bengal government have approached the Supreme Court of India challenging the Calcutta High Court order of June 15, directing the deployment of central forces in all districts. The State government and the SEC do not have enough resources at their disposal to conduct the mammoth exercise across the State on a single day. Therefore, the deployment of central forces should have been welcomed, particularly when the High Court has directed that the cost of the deployment will be borne by the Centre and not the State government. Elections will be held to nearly 73,897 seats of the three-tier local body structure. In 2013, the SEC itself had sought Supreme Court direction for the deployment of central forces, in stark contrast with its opposition to it now. Violence has been normalised in State politics for decades, and parties in the opposition always seek the deployment of central forces in all elections.
In the 2018 local body polls, there was no deployment of central forces, and in more than one third of the seats, the ruling Trinamool Congress candidates won without contest. Opposition parties were not allowed to put up any candidate in these seats. While the situation is a bit better this time, the Opposition parties have not been able to file nominations in about 50 of the 341 blocks of the State amid reports of the intimidation of candidates. Governor C.V. Ananda Bose visited violence-affected areas at Bhangar and Canning, and Raj Bhavan, Kolkata, has opened a control room where citizens can register their grievances related to the polls. The “peace room”, as the Governor calls it, will forward these complaints to the State government and the SEC. The Governor has turned the spotlight on the deteriorating law and order situation and nudged the SEC and the State government to take complaints of violence seriously. He has also carefully avoided a confrontation with the elected government. West Bengal was among the first States to have a three-tier panchayat system aimed at democratic decentralisation. It is for all the stakeholders including political parties to ensure that the exercise of electing panchayat functionaries does not descend into lawlessness and chaos.