Kolkata: Rarely does a civil servant in West Bengal say things that could be seen as an attack on the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has been in power in the state since 1977.
In an exclusive interview, Debashis Sen, the state’s chief electoral officer, raised tough issues such as whether people were stopped from filing nominations in the 2008 panchayat elections.
Security concerns: Sen says the increase in Maoist violence in West Bengal is worrying. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
“In the panchayat election in 2008, we have data that (shows) many hundreds of seats were won uncontested. People could not even, or did not, I must say, file nominations. We have detailed data on that... Nobody wants to contest? Not a single person, even for zilla parishad seats? Even in a club election, there are so many people who contest. It’s unusual,” Sen said.
But the political balance in the state is fast changing, according to Sen. Opposition parties such as the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, and the Maoists are making inroads into Left Front bastions, and Sen fears the “shift in the political scenario” could lead to large-scale violence ahead of and during the general election in West Bengal, where polling starts on 30 April and ends on 13 May. Edited excerpts:
In the past few days, we have been hearing reports of political clashes across West Bengal and neighbouring states. Are you apprehensive of violence in the general election?
I am much more worried (than 2006) for two reasons. We do not have the amount of force we had in 2006. We had 600 companies of central forces and the election was held in five phases. I can’t give you figures just now, but I am sure it’s going to be much less than that this year. And in between there’s been a shift in the political scenario.
I was very proud that after the 2006 election, everybody said “I could cast my vote”. It is the perception of the people that it was the fairest election ever (in West Bengal). And also, there was no loss of life.
That was 2006 May. Look at the panchayat election in 2008 May—just 24 months later. Same state, same people, but there were, as far as I remember, 40 dead in the state, despite fewer people voting in the panchayat election. In Domkal in Murshidabad district alone, 11 persons lost their lives on the day of polling.
Last week, I went to Domkal to understand what is to be done this time. Lots of country-made bombs and other things are there (this time as well). We must flush them out and so we have already sent a company of central forces there.
You have been trying to break the deadlock in Lalgarh, where tribals have wrested control of a 300 sq. km area from the administration. But do you think in the end you’d be able to persuade the tribals of Lalgarh to allow the central forces to escort poll officials?
There’s been an increase in Maoist violence in the state, which is concerning. If it’s a question of hardcore Maoists, no amount of central forces can make any difference. Maoists don’t believe in democracy. They even use rocket launchers—it’s a full-scale warfare. Undoubtedly there is a Maoist influence in Lalgarh as well—tribals are not so good at organizing themselves. But here was a group, I thought, that was wavering like Humpty Dumpty—it could fall either this way or that way. So, I thought, there could be a way to save at least one group from going the hardcore Maoist way.
I never knew Chhatradhar Mahato (Lalgarh’s tribal leader), but I saw (on television) that he was addressing a press conference at the Press Club of Kolkata and I called him and asked him to come down to my office. And we eventually met one-to-one.
In one meeting of one hour, I was able to convey that I was not their enemy, and now they want us to play the mediator. They have said in writing that they would allow central forces to enter Lalgarh and conduct polling if certain demands are met. Some of their demands are outlandish, I know, but that’s how all negotiations start.
The ice is beginning to melt, and now everything depends on the negotiating skills of the two parties (the tribals and the state government). Our mission is that every citizen should be given a fair chance to vote, which is why we are trying our utmost (to resolve the Lalgarh crisis). But we will not risk human lives—that is the bottom line.