Kolkata: The first day of first phase of polling in West Bengal was a test for the Election Commission. Though, barring a few incidents of booth capturing and rigging, the vote was peaceful and bigh in the 18 assembly constituencies of Jangalmahal (a turnout of 80% was recorded), the role of the Central forces and the way the EC turned a blind eye to that, have given rise to serious apprehensions about the rest of the five phases of polls in the state.
In a chilling reminder of what happened in 2014 – when the Central forces were mostly confined to the barracks while the state police was given full charge of security in and outside the polling stations – this time too the Central forces were neither seen conducting flag marches on polling day in sensitive areas nor were they seen establishing area domination.
The special observers – flying squads formed by the EC for the specific purpose of quick intervention – were not seen throughout the day. However, the EC announced from Delhi that it has asked the chief election officer, Sunil Gupta to respond to media reports that highlighted incidents of disturbances in the poll process and report back to the commission.
Though there was no such reports of large-scale capture of polling booths by the ruling Trinamool Congress, there were two incidents from Bankura’s Taldangra constituency and West Medinipur’s Salboni where booths were allegedly captured by the party’s cadres. Also, in some areas of Bankura and Purulia, in violation of the EC’s order, the state police were positioned inside the booths while Central forces were pushed outside.
Opposition parties and members of civil society are apprehensive that the passive role of the Central forces on the first day of the elections will only encourage the ruling party’s cadres to go for large-scale violence on the remaining five days of polling.
In 2014, taking advantage of the passive role of the Central forces, the ruling Trinamool Congress workers engaged in large scale rigging in a number of Lok Sabha constituencies. Voting was marred by violence, with attacks on opposition workers and polling agents. The Election Commission was accused of doing nothing to protect the voters. Aware of that experience, the EC took special care over the past one and a half months to assure the voters of Bengal that it would be holding elections in a free and fair manner. For that, no less than 700 companies of Central paramilitary forces have been deployed – or are about to be deployed – across the length and breadth of the state.
Chief election commissioner Naseem Zaidi visited the state twice and held meetings with the state administration, leaders of political parties, media persons and civil society members, and announced a number of confidence building measures so that voters could come forward to cast their votes without any fear. Accordingly, the Central paramilitary forces started conducting flag marches in the districts, mostly in sensitive and vulnerable areas. Zaidi assured the voters of Bengal that polling booths would be manned by the Central forces alone, and that the state police would be responsible for managing the queues in front of the booths. Moreover, that the Central forces would take control of the adjacent areas and go deep into the villages to establish ‘area domination’ so that voters could approach polling booths without fear. “There will be 100% availability of Central paramilitary forces in all the polling stations. They will be available well in advance and be used for area domination and confidence building measures”, Zaidi had said in a press meet in Kolkata in December, 2015. He reiterated this position again and again. In fact the Central forces started arriving from March 1, 2016 onwards, and began their flag march in sensitive areas.
Why then were these forces not made visible outside most polling stations ? Even if the Central forces were deployed in more than 80% of the total 4945 polling stations, there were 250 companies of paramilitary forces pressed into service on the first day’s poll. Why were they not seen on the roads? Also, the EC has deployed 14 general observers, 676 micro observers and two helicopters. The helicopters were not seen flying, the observers were not seen present at the places where disturbances occurred. At Aadharnayan village under Salboni constituency, six media persons were attacked and beaten up by TMC musclemen when they went there to check a case of booth capture. The Central forces present in front of the polling stations stood watching, and did nothing to rescue them. Later on, when more media persons went to that area, the jawans of the Central forces denied them entry to the village. There was no immediate response from the EC. Instead, it held that voting in Bengal was incident-free.
However, opposition party leaders are less than satisfied. While the state Congress leader, Adhir Choudhury said he was frustrated seeing the role of the EC, BJP leader Rahul Sinha said that his party had expected a more pro-active role and would take the issue up with the commission. The Left, however, is less vocal. Suryakanta Mishra, state secretary of CPI(M), is rather upbeat and said that in Jangalmahal the people have “given a fitting reply” to chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Mohammed Salim felt that it could not be said that the entire voting process was free from coercion – that the TMC cadre, with a section of the state police, tried to influence the election process, but the people largely foiled their attempt. However, a section of political observers and members of civil society have begun speculating about a ‘secret deal between Modi and Didi. Samir Aich and Bolan Gangopadhyaya of Save Democracy Forum say the state government is controlling the state police and the Central government is controlling the Central forces, thus rendering the EC helpless. If this becomes a trend, that will only embolden the TMC cadres to become more aggressive and act accordingly, like they did in 2014. On April 11, the second phase of polling will see 34 constituencies casting ballots. If the EC does not take some measures to restore confidence among the voters before that, it would be a repeat of 2014 elections in Bengal, they fear.