Why EC opted for 8-phase polls in Bengal

Central intelligence agencies provided a detailed assessment on political violence in West Bengal to the Election Commission of India ahead of the crucial assembly polls, people familiar with the matter said , adding that this was the basis on which the commission decided to stagger the elections across eight phases, a decision that has since come in for criticism.

The assessment estimates that there have been at least 1,500 incidents of political violence between mid-2019 and the end of 2020, resulting in 118 deaths.

Of the three other states and the Union territory of Puducherry that go to polls around the same time, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry will vote in a single phase; Assam will vote in three. The last assembly elections in the state, in 2016, were held in 6 phases; and the one before that, in 2011, in 6 phases as well.

The assessment, which was provided on January 9, captures the extent of the violence that took place during the 2018 panchayat elections, the parliamentary elections in 2019 and in the run up to the 2021 assembly polls. Overall, 693 election related violent incidents were observed around polling dates in 2019, according to the document, a copy of which has been reviewed by HT.

A senior EC official confirmed to HT that it held over five to six meetings with the officials of central intelligence agencies, paramilitary forces and the union home ministry to assess the law and order situation in West Bengal and determine the kind of security required for the polling.

“Law and order is always taken into consideration before deciding poll dates,” added the official who asked not to be named.

“ BJP’s rant on West Bengal is another farce. Far removed from facts. In the current Lok Sabha, 116 of the 303 BJP members have criminal charges against them. Despite the NCRB data saying one political murder took place in Bengal in 2016, the Union home ministry contradicted the report and said that 36 political murders had taken place. The NCRB report has also said Kolkata is the safest city in India for the 2nd year in a row. Crimes against women have also gone down and police have launched several schemes to ensure better results,” said TMC MP Derek Obrien.

West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are in the midst of a bitter electoral battle . The latter, once an insignificant player in the state — it won only 3 seats in the 294-seat assembly in 2016 — won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2019. The party has also engineered several defections from the TMC.

“More than 130 BJP workers have been killed in TMC’s regime. Law and order in West Bengal have touched the rock bottom. The TMC has totally politicised the administration and police. We had demanded central forces much ahead of the polls because of rising violence. Our workers and supporters are being implicated in false cases,” said Samik Bhattacharya, BJP’s spokesperson in West Bengal.

The Election Commission has also identified that at least 6,400 polling booths are vulnerable to law-and-order problems, a person familiar with the matter said. In West Bengal, 22,830 auxiliary polling stations have been set up to ensure no more than 1,000 people vote at the same station — a move made necessary by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. This has taken the overall number of booths in the state to 1,01,733. In addition, at least 100,000 personnel from central armed forces (120 companies ) have been deployed in the state.

The first EC official said that the Commission also analysed the data of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) to assess the extent of political violence in West Bengal .

The decision to hold election in eight phases was met with sharp criticism from incumbent chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who has alleged that the schedule was drawn up o suit the BJP.

According to the Centre’s report, shared with EC on January 9, Bengal witnessed large scale violence with the involvement of almost all parties in this, in the 2018 Panchayat elections, 2019 Lok Sabha election and over the past year.

The report said that 23 people, mostly party workers and supporters, were killed in election related violence on the polling day and night in May 2018 Panchayat election – out of which 11 belonged to the All India Trinamool Congress, two to the Bharatiya Janata Party and five to the Left parties.

“AITC (Trinamool Congress) was aggressor in 12 of these incidents while BJP was aggressor in two incidents. 266 persons were injured on the day of election. Among these, 89 belonged to AITC, 84 to BJP, 10 to Communist Party of India (Marxist), 3 toCongress, 79 police officers, journalists and common public,” the report states.

The report added that the violence was concentrated in regions where the BJP has made inroads in the state. “Most of the violent incidents had occurred in districts Coochbehar, Uttar and Dakshin 24 Parganas, Purbo Medinipur, Nadia, Bardhaman and Uttar Dinajpur where BJP has made inroads. Violence in these areas was aimed to prevent BJP from deploying its polling agents and restricting voter turnout at the polling booths”, report said.

Some of the notable incidents of political violence mentioned by agencies in the report to the EC include the December 10, 2020 attack on BJP president J P Nadda’s convoy in South 24 Parganas; the heckling of BJP MP Babul Supriyo in Jadhavpur University on September 19, 2019 and attack on his convoy on May 12, 2019; and the death of three BJP workers on June 8, 2019.

“That incidents of political violence are rising in West Bengal is nothing new. In 2006 assembly elections were held in five phases, in 2011 they were held in six phases and in 2016 they were held in seven phases. This year they are held in eight phases. This proves how poll violence has escalated during the TMC’s regime. The number of phases is not important. ECI has to ensure that elections are held in a free and fair manner and people can exercise their right,” said Sujan Chakraborty, CPIM leader.

Referring to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the report says 11 people were killed and 731 were injured in a 80-day period (from March 1 till May 21, 2019). Out of 11 dead, 6 belonged to BJP, 3 to Trinamool Congress and one each to Congress and CPM. Among the injured, 462 were from BJP, 63 from Trinamool Congress, 26 from CPM, 23 from Congress, and there were 13 journalists, 11 policemen and 27 others.

The data collected by agencies also reveals since then (June 1, 2019), till the end of last year, there have been 1515 incidents of political violence in which 118 party workers/supporters died (BJP – 47, AITC – 60, CPM – 4 and others – 7) while around 2800 were injured.

43 incidents of political violence were reported between January 1 and 7 this year.

According to former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi, the agencies brief the Commission when they are asked to. “The Election Commission does its own mapping of how vulnerable any polling station is,” Quraishi said. “The District Magistrates and Superintendent of Police are part of the machinery to understand the vulnerability and do the mapping. Mostly, the EC does its own assessment and informs the government of the number of paramilitary forces required.”

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