After the election commission announced a six-phase election in the state, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee didn’t waste any time in dubbing the move a “political conspiracy”. Careful not to directly criticise the EC, she promised to “fight the battle” of a six-phase poll held over seven days. All three opposition parties, have meanwhile, attacked TMC for criticising the EC.
But while the TMC has made it displeasure at, what they believe is an inordinately long election, abundantly clear, sources in the opposition, particularly leaders of the CPM and Congress, still trying desperately to forge a tactical alliance in Bengal, have said the present election schedule does suit them. For the BJP, once surging forwards in West Bengal, this allows time to make one last ditch effort to sort out the incredible internal chaos that has prevailed in the past months. Moreover, opposition party leaders explained that the presence of Central Forces will also prevent the ruling party from “influencing voters” and “managing booths”, allowing the electorate to vote “freely and without fear”.
At a press conference hours after the EC announcement, Banerjee questioned the “logic” of a single day polling in Tamil Nadu — a state with 234 Assembly seats in comparison to Bengal’s 294 — and a two-day poll schedule in Assam where there have been two major incidents of communal violence in 2012 and 2014 respectively. She called this “step motherly treatment” from the Centre.
But the Left in turn have submitted a memorandum to the EC, criticising TMC’s “questioning of the jurisdiction” of the Election Commission while seeking “measures to rectify” the situation caused by the “partisian role” of the police, that puts “opposition in a largely handicapped situation”. It added that certain areas such as the tri-junction of Birbhum, Bardhaman and Murshidabad districts are sensitive in nature and constitute a hub of “widespread violence”.
The reason for Mamata Banerjee’s displeasure is three fold. Firstly, a six phase election, spread over seven days, with the first phase lasting two days is – the party believes – the same as a seven phase election and undercuts Banerjee’s claims that in her state there is “no violence”, definitely no “communal tension”. This will create an atmosphere of tension and fear and play directly into the hands of the opposition parties’ electoral campaign of “deteriorating law and order” in West Bengal.
Citing the decision to hold polls in two rounds in the first phase, in the 49 Assembly segments of the state’s areas vulnerable to Maoist extremism – Purulia, West Midnapore and Bankura districts, her party leaders claimed that this directly undercut Mamata Banerjee’s electoral campaign of ‘Jangalmahal Smiling’, based on her government’s success in controlling Maoist violence in the state.
Secondly, the deployment of central forces in each and every booth in Bengal – the visible presence of central police forces and the routine flag marches – will not only serve to increase, what the TMC believes is, a “false” sense of insecurity among the voters, but also hurt the state financially. “The state is already strapped for cash and taking a massive dent as far as our debt is concerned. In order to manage debt, we’d have to chose to stop development completely. This is a legacy of the previous Left Front government and we are left to bear with it. When Central Forces are deployed in the state, it is the state which pays for them, houses them and so on and so forth,” said a source close to the CM.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this allows all three opposition parties to right their ship. The TMC had initially wanted late elections, in order to allow time to announce a long list of upcoming developmental projects. But Mamata Banerjee changed her stand promptly after the chances of a Left-Congress tactical alliance became “likely”, said sources. Not only does the present electoral schedule give the Left and Congress to sort out the chinks of a tactical alliance, that has caused both controversy and sudden hope among their party cadre, but also gives them breathing space to concentrate party resources on different Assembly segments at different times.
Meanwhile the BJP has also got some breathing space. TMC has announced the entire list of their candidates, the Left and the Congress are about to do the same in the coming week – but the BJP is still in its early planning stages. A series of internal feuds, culminating with former state president Rahul Sinha being replaced with RSS pracharak Dilip Ghosh has delayed their election campaign. Already, many in the party believe, that this delay has seen the party completely throw away the gains that they had made in West Bengal during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This, many party leaders admitted, was a glimmer of hope in an increasingly uphill struggle. “What the Left-Congress alliance has done is take the BJP out of the picture. TMC has their seats, but there is a chance now that the anti-Mamata vote will go to the alliance. When you add their respective traditional votes, it is a very grim picture for the BJP.”