NEW DELHI : The Election Commission of India (EC) came under severe criticism from opposition parties for allegedly acting at the behest of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in curtailing the Lok Sabha election campaign in West Bengal on Thursday.

While the Congress called the EC decision “a dark spot on India’s democracy", West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee termed it “a direct attack on democracy". EC has not responded to the allegations.

Banerjee’s sharp criticism of the poll body on Wednesday evening was joined by a number of political parties on Thursday, including the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham, National Conference and Telugu Desam Party. EC, they alleged, set the new campaign deadline at 10pm on Thursday so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi could address BJP rallies scheduled at Mathurapur and Dum Dum in the state earlier in the day.

“As a responsible political party, Indian National Congress has never cast aspersions on the actions of constitutional bodies, but we are deeply saddened to say that the Election Commission of India has completely lost its independence and abdicated its constitutional integrity," Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala told reporters.

Thanking opposition parties for “expressing solidarity and support", Banerjee tweeted on Thursday: “... EC’s biased actions under the directions of the BJP are a direct attack on democracy. People will give a befitting reply."

BJP shot back, claiming that opposition criticism of EC was a sign of impending loss in the elections. “The Opposition’s attack on the EVMs (electronic voting machines) and the Election Commission is an advance alibi for their defeat on the 23rd May, 2019. Their leaders represent temperamental mavericks, some highly corrupt and many - a governance disaster," tweeted finance minister Arun Jaitley.

Late on Wednesday, EC ended the West Bengal campaign 20 hours early, an unprecedented step, citing “growing incidents of disruption and violence during political campaigns". A day earlier, TMC and BJP workers had clashed in state capital Kolkata during a roadshow of BJP president Amit Shah.

While EC has frequently faced criticism from parties, especially during elections, the latest incident is unique, putting the constitutional body under the spotlight.

“My only view is that this decision was taken by the EC, which is a constitutional body mandated to hold free and fair polls. If the decision is not acceptable to anyone, then they can go to the courts to challenge it and not fight this out on the streets," said T.S. Krishnamurthy, a former chief election commissioner, who oversaw the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

New Delhi-based political analyst Manisha Priyam, however, said EC had a “lot to answer for" as it was “being seen as a sullied body", which “took a seemingly arbitrary decision" in curtailing the campaign. She said: “If the conditions are not suitable to hold free and fair polls and continue with campaigning, then why was it not halted forthwith and why the wait for over 24 hours? It is not just about opposition parties attacking, it is also that citizens feel the EC is being a partial body.

“As far as I remember, in nearly three decades, the EC has not come under such fire. Any public institution, particularly the EC, needs to work with impartiality to retain the immense trust citizens have in constitutional bodies."

The final phase of polling in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections takes place on Sunday in 59 parliamentary constituencies across seven states and the Union territory of Chandigarh. Of this, nine seats are in West Bengal where BJP and TMC have locked horns.

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