In an unprecedented move, the Election Commission (EC) on Wednesday said campaigning in West Bengal for the nine seats that go to the polls on Sunday will end nearly a day earlier. It also relieved two bureaucrats of their respective posts with immediate effect.
The EC said campaigning for the remaining Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal will end at 10 pm on Thursday instead of the scheduled end at 5 pm on Friday. EC officials said this was the first time they invoked Article 324 of the Constitution to pass such an order.
The order drew immediate reactions from Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who came down heavily on the EC, terming the order unprecedented, unconstitutional and unfair.
Addressing a press conference, Banerjee said the order was a gift from the EC to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. “There is no law and order problem. There were only two small incidents in six phases of polling and the vandalism in yesterday's roadshow was done by the BJP. But the Election Commission has insulted Bengal,” Banerjee said, urging people of Bengal to lead protest marches on Thursday.
Modi is scheduled to address two public rallies in West Bengal on Thursday in Laxmikantapur and Dumdum. “Why has the commission not stopped campaign immediately? Is it because Narendra Modi has two rallies in Bengal tomorrow?... The commission has rewarded the perpetrators of Tuesday's incident. It is a planted criminal conspiracy,” she said.
“The people of Bengal will respond to this… Bengal is under attack. I will give a fitting reply to Modiji,” she added.
Earlier in the day, BJP Chief Amit Shah accused the EC “double standards” for remaining a “mute spectator” to rigging and violation of the poll code in the state.
“I want to tell the EC that it has become a mute spectator to attempts to rig polls in West Bengal. It should immediately intervene. History-sheeters... are arrested during elections across the country. In Bengal, they are released after furnishing a bond. What is this double standard from the EC? Why is it silent,” he asked.
Shah said election observers in their reports have said polls in the state cannot be conducted fairly until such miscreants are arrested but the EC did not act. It raises many questions on the election watchdog's impartiality, he said.
In its order, the EC stated that it has been “brought to the notice of the commission that there has been growing incidents of disruption and violence” during political campaigning in the state. It stated that EC officials visited Bengal on May 13 to take stock of election preparedness. It said that during the review it “clearly came out” that while much of the preparedness was on track there was “distinct resistance and non-cooperation from the district administration and district police when it comes to providing level playing field to all candidates for campaigning and in providing a fearless threat free environment to the voters”.
The order noted that EC observers pointed out that “while on the surface everything looks fine but in their frank interaction with the public the fear psychosis that is widely prevalent came out”. It said Trinamool Congress leaders have threatened voters saying central forces will leave the state after the polls. It also alluded to a BJP delegation meeting EC officials about the situation in Bengal.
The EC order will draw curtains on campaigning in the Lok Sabha seats of Dumdum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jainagar, Mathurapur, Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur, Kolkata South and Kolkata North on Thursday night. It has also banned sale of alcohol in areas in these Lok Sabha seats.
The EC said it was “deeply anguished” at the bust of Bengal renaissance leader Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar having been vandalised. It asked the state administration to trace the vandals at the earliest.
On Tuesday, Shah’s convoy was allegedly attacked by Trinamool-backed goons during a roadshow in the metropolis while alleged BJP-backed “outsider goons from Bihar-Jharkhand” attacked college students chanting “Amit Shah go back”.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) as well as the Congress blamed the BJP, which in turn alleged that Trinamool workers broke the statue of the iconic reformer, who was a key figure in Indian renaissance.
The BJP is hopeful that Tuesday’s events in Kolkata would influence voter behaviour, if not in West Bengal, at least in rest of the seats going to the polls in the last phase on Sunday. The Trinamool invoked Bengali pride by pointing out that the BJP leaders had little understanding of the state’s rich cultural heritage and non-Bengali speakers from other states were brought in to indulge in violence and vandalise the statue.
Vidyasagar, a Sanskrit scholar, is a celebrated 19th century figure who gave shape to the Bengali alphabet and type, and compelled the British to bring in the Widow Remarriage Act, besides fighting against Hindu orthodoxy for women's education.
Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said, “We forthrightly accuse the BJP of destroying the statue of Vidyasagar. Under Modi-Shah, mobocracy is being actively encouraged and abetted by the ruling party. We have seen irreversible damage to the cultural identities of the state it has been doing.”
At a rally in Agarpara in Bengal, Mamata said the incident was a “planned criminal conspiracy” and “Bhojpuri hooliganism”. She supported her claim by showing video footage of the incident.
She supported her claim by showing video footage of the incident, where saffron-colour draped people are seen going on the rampage. Another leaked WhatsApp video, allegedly shows a Hindi-speaking local leader of the BJP asking group members not only to attend Shah’s rally or face consequences, but be prepared to take on the TMC and the police during the rally.
The Prime Minister, who addressed public meetings in Bengal, said, “The whole nation is talking about what happened in Kolkata yesterday. It shows her (Mamata’s) nervousness. She had said she will avenge ‘inch-by-inch’ and she did it in a matter of 24 hours. She planned the attack on Shah.”
CID DG relieved of charges
In another order, the EC relieved DG, CID, Rajeev Kumar of his charge with immediate effect and instructed him to report to the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi by 10 am on Thursday. It also relieved Principal Secretary (Home and Hill Affairs) Attri Bhattacharya of his charge for “having interference in the process of conducting of elections” through his letter to the Bengal chief electoral officer on May 13. It said West Bengal chief secretary will look after the charge of the home secretary of the state also.