Politics

Trinamool’s Message to Voters: Don’t Mess With Me

That the Election Commission was defensive and apologetic for the violence that broke out during day two of the assembly polls, is a measure of how the establishment colludes by accepting violations as normal.

Bankura: Central Force Jawan keeps vigil while voters stand in a queue to cast vote at a polling station during the 2nd part of 1st phase West Bengal assembly elections in Bankura on Monday. Credit: PTI

Bankura: Central Force Jawan keeps vigil while voters stand in a queue to cast vote at a polling station during the 2nd part of 1st phase West Bengal assembly elections in Bankura on Monday. Credit: PTI

Kolkata: There are two perspectives that matter in the ongoing election in West Bengal – that of Mamata Banerjee, so that she can continue for another term as chief minister, and that of the Election Commission (EC). The rest – the opposition parties and the voters – are sub-plots in this narrative of confrontation between the different agencies of the state and the Constitution – the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) versus the independent EC.

If the EC had not blinked, describing the incidents of day two (April 11) of the first phase of polling as “minor,” then it’s unprecedented and extraordinary measures for a free and fair poll in West Bengal would have been worth the money and the effort that has gone into three layers of observers, on site videos, webcams, massive security bandobast and a monitoring mechanism controlled from New Delhi. The elaborate arrangements for the seven-day, six phase election was a counter-offensive to prevent the TMC from overpowering the opposition, subverting the election process and getting its own way. It failed.

For the TMC, delivering a clear warning was necessary. The second day of polling includes the crucial seat of Narayangarh in West Midnapore, where the star candidate is Communist Party of India (Marxit)’s state secretary, Surya Kanta Mishra. This round of polling also includes heavyweight Congress leader Manash Bhuiyan, contesting from Sabang, who has belatedly but strongly embraced the alliance with the Left. If voters had hoped to support the new political alignment, April 11 would have been the first big break for it. But The TMC wanted to reduce the risk and get it over and done with.

The polling agent who was assaulted. Credit: By special arrangement

The polling agent who was assaulted. Credit: By special arrangement

The TMC snapped its fingers and the result was a bleeding polling agent in Jamuria constituency captured on camera, polling agents driven out of polling booths, voters beaten and bullied, bikers guarding the gates of polling stations minutes after polling began, while the EC struggled to defend its role. Late afternoon, the tally was still being tabulated, although poll violence began to be tracked from 5.30 am.

The central security forces seemed to have scattered and were nowhere near the scenes of violence or intimidation. “It has been a colossal waste,” said a local observer, laying the blame on the EC’s failure on its promise that not a single vote would be wasted, and that intimidation, inducement and violence would be contained. But the TMC did away with these plans, confidently communicating its message as the day unfolded – get out of my way and don’t mess with me.

There are no doubts that the TMC was the principal coordinator of the intimidation, inducements and violence that occurred. That it stole the message from the EC, which ended up being defensive and apologetic, is a measure of how the establishment colludes by accepting violations as normal.

Normal is a description that covers a wide range of actions, including the abnormal. The EC clearly accepts this elastic description to brush off contretemps like adding up the number of votes polled. On April 4, day one of polling in West Midnapore’s Belpahari constituency, the EC reported that there was 100% polling in Laljal Prathamik Vidyalaya. After three days, it revised the numbers and declared that only 89.3% had been polled. Taking credit for uncovering the discrepancy, the EC noted that the revised tally was based on the signed compilation records, namely Form 17 C and not the machine, which had a ghost that produced a “human error.”

In defending the indefensible, political parties, political pundits, the media, the government and of course the EC are willing colluders in stripping voters of the basic right to freely choose between competing candidates. The upshot is that opposition parties have been deprived of a fair contest. The irony is the EC promises in its messaging to voters that it will deliver “incident free” polls. It then waters down the promise into a conditional assurance of an election without major incidents. This is followed by describing the incidents as “minor.” All incidents, irrespective of the EC’s definitions are, by virtue of having occurred, violations of the constitutionally guaranteed right to choose freely and fairly.

From before polling began today, it was obvious that the TMC was conveying a message to voters – fall in line, follow the instructions and stay safe, or else there will be a reckoning. Staging the incidents was a clearly calculated gamble based on a smart assessment that the EC and pundits would end up defending the day as successful, barring “minor” incidents. The risks of doing so were small compared to the benefits that will follow in the next five days of polling, because voters will have read the violence as a warning and heard the EC’s defence as a classic cover up.