Phase 8 voting in Bengal today: Here’s how state polled amid COVID-19

Of the 35 seats going to poll on Thursday, a triangular contest is expected at least in six Maldah and 11 Murshidabad seats, where there is strong concentration of Muslim votes

Security personnel stationed at Mahajati Sadan Auditorium in north Kolkata, where bombs were hurled on the last day of polling. Photo: ANI/Twitter

The curtain will finally fall on the over one-month-long election in the state with polling in 35 seats across four districts on Thursday.

The staggered process kicked-started with the first phase of polling on March 27 amidst an aura of COVID triumphalism. But after the half-way mark, the atmosphere changed into that of timorous, with the biggest festival of democracy emerging as a super-spreader of the deadly virus due to utter negligence of all stakeholders.

The state had registered 812 new COVID-19 cases on March 27, the day the staggered eight-phase elections kick-started with polling in 30 seats.

The number shot up to 4,043 when the state went to the fourth phase of polling on April 10, even as the political parties and the Election Commission refused to read the writing on the wall.

Political parties and their leaders went ahead competing with each other in organising crowded rallies and crammed road shows, oblivious of a pandemic that was still simmering.

The election commission too remained nonchalant in enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols.

In the political discourse, the issue of COVID-19 outbreak and its handling by the government was shut out. Issues like corruption in disbursement of government-run welfare schemes, misuse of Amphan relief funds, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), religious polarisation, switching of loyalties by politicians and even the leg injury of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee were figuring prominently in the campaigning.

Only ahead of the fifth-phase elections on April 17, the political parties started slowly taking notice of the grim reality. But even that day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Asansol flaunted the attendance, saying he had never ever seen such a huge gathering. By then the state was staring at a full-blown health crisis, increasing the clamour for clubbing the remaining phases of polls and enforcing COVID-19 guidelines.

It was at this belated stage the political parties started curtailing their programmes and calling off rallies. COVID-19 suddenly became the main poll issue.

The state’s ruling Trinamool Congress put the blame on the BJP-led central government for the rise in COVID-19 cases across the country. It also accused the BJP of spreading the virus in the state by bringing in leaders and workers for campaigning.

The BJP on the other hand tried to put up a defence citing that the health is a state issue and that the state government did not take adequate measures to ramp up health infrastructure.

It took a few more days, and that also after being pulled up by the court that the EC got into proactive mode. It banned roadshows, vehicle rallies, and public meetings of more than 500 people and increased the silence period from 48 hours to 72 hours on April 22, the day the sixth phase of polling took place. For the record, 11,948 COVID-19 cases were detected on that day.

In the meantime, the pandemic took the lives of four candidates while several others got infected. Congress state president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, union minister and BJP candidate Babul Supriyo, senior TMC leaders and candidates Madan Mitra and Shashi Panja, CPI (M) leader Sujan Chakraborty are among the long list of prominent leaders infected by the virus.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who was in home isolation, recovered a couple of days ago.

Taking note of the alarming pandemic situation in the state, a renowned health expert Dr Kunal Sarkar at a television talk-show predicted that after May 2, the day election results would be announced, the coronavirus would rule the state.

Meanwhile, the wife of deceased TMC candidate from Khardaha Kajal Sinha on Wednesday filed a police complaint against the EC for the death of her husband after contacting coronavirus during campaigning.

In her complaint filed at the Khardah Police Station, Nandita Sinha alleged that the commission turned a blind eye towards enforcing COVID-19 protocols resulting in the deaths of thousands of people including her husband.

She sought action against ECI officials for the “deliberate and intentional omission.”

The voter turnout for the seats that went to the polls in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh phases was 84.63 per cent, 86.11 per cent, 84.61 per cent, 79.90 per cent, 82.49 per cent, 79.11 per cent and 76.90 per cent respectively.

The bitterly fought elections also witnessed widespread violence leading to the death of more than ten persons, including four in firing by central forces at Sitalkuch in Cooch Behar district.

Amidst all these, the poll panel also witnessed a change of guard with Sushil Chandra taking over as the new Chief Election Commissioner of India on April 13.  He replaced Sunil Arora who had retired in the middle of an election process.

In another unprecedented development, during the entire elections, TMC supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee campaigned on a wheel-chair after getting injured during her campaign trail in Nandigram on March 10.

Her plastered leg too became a heatedly debated election issue.  While the TMC tried to draw sympathy from the powerful imagery of her plastered leg, while the BJP tried its best to deny its opponent the advantage in the most keenly fought elections in the recent past.

The main contests were between the TMC and the BJP. The Sanjukta Morcha comprising the Left Front, Congress and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) could however upset the apple carts of the two main contenders.

“The Morch can be the deciding factor. If the CPI (M) managed to win back the support that had shifted to the BJP in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, then the saffron party would be in serious trouble in reaching a three-digit figure,” pointed out Kolkata-based political commentator and author Nirmalya Banerjee.

Similarly, he said, the TMC should be worried about erosion of its Muslim vote base by the ISF and also the Congress to certain extent.

Of the 35 seats going to poll on Thursday, a triangular contest is expected at least in six Maldah and 11 Murshidabad seats, where there is strong concentration of Muslim votes.

In Birbhum’s eleven seats, the BJP took lead in the five assembly segments in the last parliamentary elections largely due to a shift of Left Front votes into the saffron party. This time the Left tried hard to regain its lost ground.

In Kolkata’s seven seats, the TMC has the slight edge. But the BJP of late has made a significant inroad even in these seats, particularly in Shyampukur and Jorasanko.