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New Delhi: The Election Commission of India has been under the scanner since the beginning of the 2019 poll campaign. Its neutrality was questioned by many in the opposition and civil society alike, as each decision it took appeared to favour the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The multiple clean chits given by the poll body to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah in complaints that they made communal, polarising speeches during rallies are cases in point.
On Wednesday, following violence during an Amit Shah roadshow in Kolkata, the EC decided to curtail the campaign in the state by a day for all the nine seats going to polls in West Bengal on May 19. In a rare decision, it invoked Article 324 of the constitution to put a ban on campaign from 10 pm on Thursday.
Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee soon hit out at the ECI for allegedly pandering to BJP’s interests. She asked if the violence during Shah’s roadshow, in which a statue of 19th-century Bengali educationalist and reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was desecrated, was the reason for such a ban, what prevented it to impose the ban from Wednesday onwards.
She said that the ECI tactically banned campaigning to accommodate the prime minister’s scheduled rallies in Bengal on Thursday.
At a press conference soon after the ECI’s announcement, the chief minister asked, “Amit Shah wanted to create riots, his people rioted. It was Amit Shah who should have been punished. Why did the EC not act against Shah, why was he not showcaused when he was responsible for all the trouble?”
She likened developments in Bengal to “an emergency-like situation”.
“The EC has rewarded the rioters for vandalising the bust of Vidyasagar. The people will respond on the voting day,” she said as she urged people to not caste a single vote to the BJP.
Bengal violence – the talk of elections
Since Wednesday morning, the incidents during Amit Shah’s Tuesday roadshow in north Kolkata dominated airwaves.
The Trinamool Congress and BJP traded barbs, with the TMC going hammer and tongs against the BJP for demolishing Vidyasagar’s statue. The ruling party in the state attempted to turn the issue into an attack on Bengali pride.
The saffron party, on the other hand, saw in the violence a conspiracy by the TMC to disrupt BJP’s campaign in Bengal. Shah personally addressed a press conference to deny that BJP workers destroyed the Bengali reformer’s statue, knowing very well how sensitive the issue can be in the state.
While TMC presented multiple videos to the ECI as proof to show that the BJP workers at Shah’s rally were behind the violence, Shah relied on a social media post by a defunct Facebook account and a few college pictures to defend his party.
By the end of the day, Alt News fact-checked the events on Tuesday to say that it was indeed BJP activists who initiated the violence and may have entered college premises forcibly to attack protesting students.
Opposition leaders rallied behind Mamata Banerjee after the ECI imposed a ban on campaign in Bengal. Most questioned the logic behind ECI’s decision and asked what prevented it from stopping the canvassing immediately.
If situation in Bengal is so severe that campaigning must be stopped, why is EC waiting until tomorrow? Is it because PM has scheduled rallies tomorrow?
— Ahmed Patel (@ahmedpatel) May 15, 2019
The EC’s decision to call off campaigning in Bengal is against all norms of democratic fair play. I fully support @MamataOfficial ji in her fight to stop the undemocratic march of the two and a half men who have used and abused every institution of our country for their own gain.
— Akhilesh Yadav (@yadavakhilesh) May 15, 2019
If a ban is intended for 72 hours, why is it starting at 10pm tomorrow? Is it to allow the two rallies of the PM before that? https://t.co/wn6MqmmrhD
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) May 15, 2019
Priyanka Gandhi’s roadshow and Kamal Haasan’s reply to the SC
Meanwhile, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, in a show of strength, held a big roadshow in Modi’s constituency, Varanasi. The Congress rally passed through the same route which the prime minister had taken three weeks ago when he filed his nomination.
Down south, actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan defended his statement that independent India’s first extremist Nathuram Godse, Mahtama Gandhi’s killer, was a Hindu. He said what he said was a “historical truth”. The BJP, which felt Haasan defamed Hindus, has stirred a political controversy over his statement. The party also appealed to the ECI to take action against the Makkal Needhi Maiam leader.