NEW DELHI: The Election Commission (EC) advanced the deadline for campaigning in the last phase of polling in West Bengal by a day to Thursday night after violence erupted between supporters of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Tuesday amid a lunge for a clutch of seats in and around Kolkata.
EC cited “growing incidents of disruption and violence during political campaigns" after days of acrimonious verbal exchanges exploded into Tuesday night’s violence during a roadshow by BJP president Amit Shah.
Campaigning for the seventh phase, involving nine seats in West Bengal, would now end at 10pm on Thursday, EC said, invoking Article 324 of the Constitution that vests the poll watchdog with the responsibility for conducting “free and fair" polls.
“This would probably be the first time when EC has invoked Article 324 in this manner, but it may not be the last in case of the repetition of lawlessness and violence, which vitiate the conduct of polls in a peaceful and orderly manner," deputy election commissioner Chandra Bhushan Kumar told reporters.
He added that EC was “deeply anguished" at the destruction of a bust of iconic social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar during the violent clashes and “hoped that the vandals are traced by the state administration".
In its order, EC cited a ground assessment report of the deputy election commissioner in charge of West Bengal as saying that a “fear psychosis" is widely prevalent among voters. “There is distinct resistance and non-cooperation from the district administration and district police when it comes to providing a level playing field to all candidates for campaigning and in providing a fearless threat-free environment to the voters," the report said.
The report also referred to observers, who noted that “utterances of senior AITC (TMC) leaders on the lines of ‘Central Forces will leave after the elections while we will remain’ send a chilling message..."
Recriminations over the violence spilled over into Wednesday, with top leaders of both the parties accusing each other of vitiating the law and order situation. The two parties also submitted complaints against each other to EC.
“The violence may not go down well with the people. The TMC leadership is talking about Bengali pride, which will have an appeal with the voters in the nine parliamentary seats for which polling is due on Sunday," said Sabyasachi Dasgupta, a Kolkata-based political analyst.
“These seats in the last phase are in and around Kolkata, which will have an impact as it is the capital city. The anger of the people has been visible," he added.
The two parties locking horns with each other over the issue is significant as the state accounts for 42 parliamentary seats. The smashing of the Vidyasagar bust can negatively impact both TMC and BJP, the reason they blamed each other for the act.
While chief minister Mamata Banerjee-led TMC is attempting to consolidate its position in West Bengal as the incumbent, BJP aims to increase its political footprint in a state where it has been working aggressively over the last three years.
Senior leaders of BJP hope that the party can become the face of an anti-Mamata Banerjee front in the state and it has thrown its top guns into the campaign for the last phase. After Shah’s roadshow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address two meetings in the state on Thursday.
“Now I have heard that an FIR (first information report) has been filed against me. I want to tell Didi (Mamata Banerjee) that against me there is an FIR, but BJP workers have been killed in your regime," Shah told reporters in Delhi. “If you think you will scare our supporters into not coming out to vote, then you are mistaken... wait till 23 May when the results come out."
Shah accused both Kolkata Police and EC of being a “mute spectator" and claimed that the latter had “double standards" on taking action. “I have information that observers (of EC) have communicated that unless goons are not nabbed, elections will not be fair. If this is how elections will take place in West Bengal, then EC’s free and fair stand will be under doubt," Shah said. “... I appeal to EC to ensure that at least the last phase of polling in the state takes place fairly."
“The video not only clearly establishes what BJP did, but proves that its chief Amit Shah is a liar and dhokebaaz (betrayer)," senior TMC leader and Rajya Sabha member Derek O’ Brien told reporters earlier in the day in the national capital.
Modi, who was in West Bengal on Wednesday to address a rally in Taki on the India-Bangladesh border, said: “Didi’s (Mamata) goons carrying guns and bombs are bent upon destruction... Her government is out to destroy everything in the state. People’s conviction and courage will evict the torturous rule".
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