The most compelling picture of the third-phase elections held in West Bengal on April 6 was TMC’s Arambagh candidate Sujata Mondal Khan being chased through a paddy field by bamboo-stick wielding mob, allegedly BJP supporters.
On the same day six more candidates — two from the TMC, three from the BJP, and one from the ISF — were attacked by the supporters of their respective rival parties, punching a serious hole in the Election Commission’s justification of holding eight-phase polling amidst COVID-19 pandemic.
The EC’s argument for the marathon one-month long election was that it would help ensure free, fair and peaceful elections.
The above incidents of attack on candidates and death of more than 10 persons in political violence in the state since the commencement of poll process show that the eight-phase polling and huge deployment of force came to naught in ensuring peaceful elections so far.
On the other hand, several-hundred folds increase in COVID-19 cases raise the spectre of pandemic going out of control if the fiercely competitive election campaigning continues through the month without adhering to any necessary protocols.
TMC candidate from Tapan constituency in South Dinajpur district, Kalpana Kisku, tested COVID-19 positive last week, which immobilised her from campaigning.
A public interest litigation (PIL) was filed on Thursday (April 8) at the Calcutta high court, seeking the court’s intervention to curtail the poll process.
“My client Nitish Debnath, a social worker, petitioned before the court that in view of the surge in fresh COVID cases, remaining phases of elections should be clubbed together to end the process in one or two phases,” said Arindam Das advocate for the petitioner.
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On Friday, West Bengal logged 2,390 new cases of coronavirus, increasing the active caseload to 14,290.
Citing incidents of violence during elections, the petitioner said, “…it is clear that the Election Commission of India is not able to ensure a free and fair election and (as such) how can the citizens trust the said organization that they will take effective steps to ensure the Covid-19 is controlled.”
The Commission clearly needs to do a lot of answering for its failure even after the unprecedented scale of deployment of central forces.
For the 31 seats, spread over three districts of South 24 Parganas, Hooghly and Howrah that went to polls on April 6, the EC had deployed a whopping 618 companies of paramilitary forces. Each CRPF company has a strength of 135 personnel.
For context, 396 companies of central forces were deployed in 5,544 booths in 16 constituencies in South 24 Parganas. This means nine personnel were present in each booth.
Overall, 800 companies of central forces are already stationed in the state. Before the next phase of election on April 10, 200 more companies will arrive from Assam where three-phase polling ended on April 6.
On ground zero, the forces were unable to maintain effective presence, drawing flaks from leaders cutting across party lines.
Related news | Phase 2: Violence mars Bengal polls, Assam remains peaceful
Trinamool Congress spokesperson and MP Derek O’Brien, drawing attention of the EC to the attack on Mondal, alleged that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, who were on duty, did nothing to stop the assaulters. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also raised the issue of alleged inaction by central forces.
The TMC was not the only one to raise fingers at the central forces. Even BJP’s Diamond Harbour candidate Dipak Haldar questioned the role of the security forces, alleging that the quick response team was nowhere to be seen in his constituency despite complaints of voters being intimidated.
CPI(M) leader Rabin Deb was more direct in his allegations. “The EC has failed to conduct free and peaceful elections. The central forces were mute spectators,” he said.
Questions were also raised about the conduct of the previous two phases of elections. The chief minister was confined for about two hours at a booth in her constituency Nandigram while supporters of her party and BJP had a faceoff outside, shouting slogans against each other during the second-phase of polling on April 1.
Former Deputy Inspector General, Border Security Force (BSF), Samir Kumar Mitra said that deployment of central forces in booths alone would not ensure peaceful elections. Forces should have done route marches for area domination before the polling day, he suggested.
The scheduling of elections with some constituencies in one district going to poll in one phase while the others in another phase too did not help conduct peaceful elections, feel experts.
A police officer, on condition of anonymity, said such haphazard scheduling was only helping the political parties to mobilise their musclemen from adjacent constituencies where polling was over.
Mamata Banerjee alleged at election rallies recently that the poll panel was being controlled by the Union Home Minister and BJP leader Amit Shah. It was at his behest, the Commission scheduled the poll dates in eight phases, breaking up the districts, she added.
Many other non-BJP leaders too had questioned the rationale behind stretching the polls to almost a month.
“I believe it has been done deliberately and in a way, the EC has tried to help the BJP,” Congress leader Tariq Anwar was quoted as saying by the PTI.
There is no denying that considering the amount of money being spent in Indian election campaigns, a long-drawn poll process, helps political parties with deep pockets.
The BJP is by far the richest party in India with declared wealth of over ₹2904.18 crore, as per the analysis of assets of parties by the Association of Democratic Reforms. The Congress is in the distant second with assets worth ₹928.84 crore. The TMC has declared assets of ₹210.19 crore while the CPI(M) has ₹510.71 crore assets.
The monetary advantage of the BJP is quite evident from the party’s glitzy campaign being run by a slew of star campaigners, doing sorties on chartered helicopters.
From television screens to roadside corners, the BJP’s advertisements have been dominating presence over its rival. After every few minutes, the BJP advertisements splash at the television screens if one switches on any major Bengali news channel. Other political parties, including the TMC, hardly have any presence on television advertisement space.
As per industry sources, for a commercial ad spot of 10 seconds, ABP Ananda (a major Bengali news channel) charges ₹3,500-4,000+18 per cent GST.
Only on social media spending, the TMC is able to maintain a lead over the BJP. The Facebook ad spend of the TMC in the last 30 days till April 4 was more than ₹1.57 crore. The BJP West Bengal unit, during the same period, spent ₹62.21 lakh on Facebook advertisements.
“It’s obvious that the party that has more money can better sustain a longer campaign,” said TMC candidate from Gosaba, Jayanta Naskar.
The poll panel’s recent decision to change the rules for appointing polling agents too raised questions about its neutrality.
As per the new rule, a political party can now nominate a polling agent for any booth within the assembly segment even if the person is not the voter of the particular booth. Earlier, the polling agent had to be a voter of the booth in which he/she was assigned duty.
The TMC leaked an audio tape of purported conversation between BJP leaders Mukul Roy and Shishir Bajoria wherein they were discussing approaching EC to change rules for appointing polling agents as the party did not have enough booth-level workers.
“It has been implemented to help certain political parties, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party as they do not have enough organisational strength to appoint polling agents for every booth,” the TMC said in a letter to the Election Commission on March 26.
Before bringing any such major change in rules pertaining to conduct of elections, the Commission needed to consult all parties, pointed out TMC MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay. He said the rule was tweaked following a representation from the BJP seeking the change.
Similarly, the Commission’s notice to Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday (April 7) for appealing to minority voters not to split their votes also sparked debates. She was asked to explain within 48 hours her remarks made at a speech in Hooghly on April 3. The action was taken based on a complaint lodged by the BJP.
The TMC was quick to point out inaction of the Commission over complaints filed by the party against the BJP leaders making communal statements.
Only after its neutrality was questioned, the Commission on Thursday (April 8) served a notice to BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari for communal overtones in his speech delivered in Nandigram last month.
Addressing a rally on March 29, Adhikari had warned that Nandigram would become a “mini-Pakistan” if Mamata Banerjee, whom he referred to as “Begum” was elected.