Can the Election Commission Ensure Free and Fair Polls in Bengal?
The Election Commission of India (EC) has taken West Bengal’s Chief Secretary to task not only for responding to their letter ‘showcausing’ Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee but also for his choice of language.
As another drama unfolds, can the Election Commission ensure free and fair elections in West Bengal?
Without a doubt, it is a daunting task. Opinion is divided on the efficacy of this constitutional entity though even its detractors realise the enormity of the challenges it faces.
When the Assembly elections were announced on 4 March, it was declared that West Bengal would have seven days of elections, Assam two, while Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry would have just a day each.
Tamil Nadu with 234 seats has just one phase, while West Bengal with 294 seats has seven.
The West Bengal Chief Minister had criticised the ‘injustice’ being done to her state. Based on several complaints by opposition parties and data collected, the EC had concluded that conditions in the state were not conducive to holding free and fair elections. Since there was a huge need for central forces, the elections had to be spread over seven phases. West Bengal has a total of 77, 247 polling booths. These elections are seeing the highest ever deployment of central forces; 735 companies are overseeing polling in the state. Each company has about 140 men. In 2011, just 145 companies were deployed.
Is EC’s Terse Tone Enough?
Commission’s war of words with TMC continues, with the poll panel rejecting West
Bengal Chief Secretary’s response to the showcause notice.
the deployment of central forces in the state, political observers believe
routine ‘area domination’ exercise is missing.
believe central forces personnel are focusing too much on booths instead
of other vulnerable areas.
More Deterrent Action Needed
Is the EC being able to closely monitor the polling process?
When elections began in the state, the role of the state chief electoral officer, Sunil Kumar Gupta, also came under the scanner. All three opposition parties – the CPI(M), Congress and BJP – submitted notices of malpractice. The first phase of polling saw the ‘ghost votes’ controversy over the sharp rise (3.3 percent) in the number of votes polled across 18 constituencies after voting had closed on 4 April. The second phase witnessed sporadic bouts of violence.
In an unprecedented move, the EC singled out a politician and ordered close surveillance of Anubrata Mondal, the Trinamool Birbhum president who was accused of intimidating political opponents, and asked a deputy magistrate and videographer to record his every move. Mondal, however, violated the order.
The Chief Minister too was showcaused by the EC for announcing the creation of Asansol district at one of her election rallies, despite the model code of conduct.
A senior bureaucrat says, “The Chief Electoral Officer and the Election Commission have to take more deterrent action. Even the Chief Minister’s violent outbursts are continuing unabated. ”
Is the EC Going Beyond Its Mandate?
While the central forces are manning booths, it is being alleged that in certain areas voters are not being allowed to leave their homes.
However, a senior member of the police force in West Bengal feels that the EC is exceeding its brief. They hold that the EC should take an overall view instead of micromanaging.
In the past there was a three-tier system. Booths would have two members of the central forces and two from the state. The radio flying squad would have an officer and four constables assigned to 3-4 booths. The heavy radio flying squad would supervise a cluster of booths. Today the forces are concentrated in the polling booths with far less emphasis on the flying squads.
A political veteran in the state says, “Six months prior to the elections or at least once the notification for polls has been issued, there is need to announce President’s rule and a separate service for elections. The observers who come to the state are clueless about the topography and local politics. There is need for a continuous body. The Chief Electoral Officer in the state is an officer on deputation to the EC and reverts to the state cadre once his tenure is over.”
Trinamool Congress Vice-President, Dinesh Trivedi sums it up, “In a democracy if you need an army guarding your booth, our democracy has not matured. If you have no faith in the police and civil service that would mean they are more loyal to the party than to the people. That is truly sad.”
(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist)
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