Hours before counting of votes for Bengal’s 292 Assembly seats starts on Sunday (May 2), polling agents of various parties are bombarded with dos and don’ts from their respective leaders amidst fear of result tampering.
“First round of briefings is already done. At night there will be another round of briefings. All our counting agents, who are the party’s eyes and ears at the counting centres, have been asked to be very alert,” said Abu Taher, a TMC leader from Nandigram.
It is the constituency from where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is pitted against her former lieutenant Suvendu Adhikari, who shifted loyalty to the BJP just before the election.
Exit polls have predicted a slight edge for Banerjee in a nip-and-tuck contest in the high-profile constituency. But the TMC is not taking any chance.
“We have seen in Bihar how results in at least 20 seats went in favour of the BJP by a few votes after hundreds of postal ballots were declared invalid. We cannot allow a repeat of Bihar in Bengal,” said another TMC leader Mukul Chandra Bairagya.
The apprehension was not his figment of imagination. The party chief Mamata Banerjee herself alerted all candidates about possible “malpractices” during counting.
At a virtual meeting with all her party candidates on Friday, the chief minister reeled off a slew of advisories to be followed by her party agents during counting.
The meeting was scheduled on Saturday but it was advanced to give enough time to the candidates to apprise their respective agents, party sources said.
Banerjee categorically told the candidates to ensure that their agent did not take any food or tea offered by anyone at the counting centre, so as not to “doze off” at the crucial juncture, said a TMC candidate.
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The agents were directed to carry dry food and not to leave the counting table vacant even for a smoke or tea break. Two helpline numbers were provided to them for immediately alerting party’s top leadership about any “misdoings.”
As per rule, every candidate can designate one counting agent in each counting table. Generally, 15 tables, including one for the returning officer, are placed in a counting hall.
This time, to maintain COVID-19 protocols, only seven tables will be placed in a hall to maintain social distancing. The number of counting halls has been almost doubled to 706 from 385 in the 2016 election.
As per Election Commission sources, counting for the 292 seats will be held at 108 centres. Elections have been countermanded in two constituencies after the death of candidates due to COVID.
No candidate or agent will be allowed inside the counting halls without undergoing RT-PCR/RAT test or without having two doses of vaccination against COVID, according to an EC guideline.
“Even if the party candidates trail in initial rounds, no agent should leave the table until the last ballot is counted,” Banerjee was quoted as saying at the meeting, also attended by her nephew Abhishek Banerjee.
A senior TMC leader said they were particularly apprehending “mischief” in many of the 54 North Bengal and Jangalmahal constituencies.
Six of the nine exit polls predicted a TMC win, while three put the BJP ahead.
Senior BJP central leadership held a video conference with the state leaders after the exit poll results were announced asking them to keep morale of the workers, particularly counting agents, high, according to party sources.
The party’s national joint general secretary (organisation) Shivprakash reportedly asked the candidates to speak to their counting agents. “The agents should not be disheartened by the exit polls,” Shivprakash reportedly told party state leadership.
BJP state president Dilip Ghosh dismissed the exit poll findings saying his party would sweep the results with nearly 200 seats. “We believe in exact polls, not exit polls,” he said.
Veteran CPI (M) leader Biman Bose too has urged Joint Front candidates and workers not to be disheartened by the exit poll results. He reminded the election agents of their additional responsibilities this time as many candidates infected by corona virus would not be able to visit the counting centre even to collect their winning certificate.