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Thursday, May 06, 2021

Bengal polls, spanning over a month, come to an end amid soaring Covid cases

The Sitalkuchi firing escalated the war of words between TMC and BJP — while West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called for Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s resignation, Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh described the four people killed in the police firing as "bad boys".

By: Express Web Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: April 30, 2021 7:32:01 am
pollsVoters at a polling station in Kolkata (Express photo by Partha Paul)

The eighth phase of polling, voting for which ended at 6.30 pm on Thursday, brought the curtains down on the West Bengal Assembly elections to the 294 seats which spanned over a period of over a month. The election, which was held amid a worsening coronavirus situation in the state with the number of cases and deaths on the rise, witnessed a protracted and bitter campaigning.

The campaigning was marred by incidents of violence, with five being killed at Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar district after central forces opened fire on them during the fourth phase of polling. The CISF later said that their personnel were forced to open fire as an attempt was made to snatch away their weapons. According to CISF sources, a violent mob tried to disrupt polling in the Sitalkuchi Assembly segment at least twice. It was after the second attempt that CISF personnel fired, leading to the casualties, sources had said further.

Soon after the incident, the EC banned entry of politicians in Cooch Behar for next 72 hours, saying it could cause law and order issues in the area. The poll body also directed the Union Home Ministry to deploy 71 additional companies of Central Armed Police forces (CAPFs) for the conduct of remaining four phases of polls.

poll Voters outside Sadar Govt High School, Cooch Behar on Saturday, April 10, 2021. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

The Sitalkuchi firing escalated the war of words between TMC and BJP — while West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called for Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s resignation, Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh described the four people killed in the police firing as “bad boys”. Saffron party leader Rahul Sinha went a step further and said the security forces should have killed eight people instead of four. EC took action against both Ghosh and Sinha, banning them from campaigning for 24 and 48 hours respectively.

The spate of allegations and counter-allegations during the long-drawn election campaign also saw both TMC and BJP training guns on each other over purported leaked audio tapes. After the firing incident, BJP released the audio clip of a conversation purportedly between Banerjee and the TMC candidate in Sitalkuchi, where the firing happened on April 10, telling him to hold rallies with bodies of the four persons killed. The TMC claimed that the BJP had distorted the contents of the clip to spread lies.

Earlier, BJP had released an audiotape in which Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee purportedly seeks help of former TMC member-turned BJP’s Nandigram leader Pralay Pal, allegedly asking him to back her there. The TMC hit back by sharing an audio clip of a purported conversation between BJP leaders Mukul Roy and Shishir Bajoria in which a person who the TMC alleges is Roy is heard asking another person — purportedly Bajoria — to appeal to the Election Commission to allow workers from outside as booth agents, as the party does not have enough agents in the state.

polls People queue up at Kasba central modern polling station. (Express photo by Shashi Ghosh)

The marathon electoral exercise in West Bengal was held even as the Covid cases in the state and the country continued to rise. A week before the first phase of polling, the state had just 3,380 active Covid-19 cases. On April 26, when the seventh phase of polls was held, it had 94,949 active cases. In the same period, the fresh cases being recorded daily went up from only 383 to 15,992.

Four election candidates — TMC’s Khardaha candidate Kajal Sinha (59), Revolutionary Socialist Party’s Jangipur candidate Pradip Nandy, Congress’s Shamshergunj candidate Rezaul Haque and TMC’s Murarai nominee Abdur Rahman — died of Covid.

The Election Commission banned roadshows, vehicle rallies, and public meetings of over 500 people in West Bengal on April 22, an hour after Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his four rallies scheduled there the next day.

On April 24, EC noted that the enforcement of Covid-appropriate behaviour under the Disaster Management Act during campaigning in West Bengal has been “less than adequate”. It also said that the body tasked with the enforcement of Covid-19 guidelines needs to step up its assigned duty.

The issues were flagged at a meeting held by Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra and Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar with top state government officials to review enforcement of COVID guidelines during campaigning in West Bengal where two remaining phases of assembly elections are to take place next week.

Mamata Banerjee alleged that the BJP has contributed to the recent rise in Covid-19 cases in the state by bringing “outsiders” for campaigning during elections. “They (BJP leaders) have brought outsiders for campaigning and contributed to the rise in Covid cases. We had managed to get hold of the Covid situation, they made it complicated,” she said at a public meeting, PTI reported.

poll Voters at a polling station in Kolkata (Express photo by Shashi Ghosh)

The days leading up to the Bengal Assembly polls were marked by high-profile exits from the TMC camp, with Suvendu Adhikari, Rajib Banerjee, Dinesh Trivedi and Jatu Lahiri being among the big names who jumped ship to BJP. As Mamata Banerjee fights to hold on to power, a key factor to watch out for will be if TMC turncoats, many of whom enjoy  considerable influence at the grassroots level, can swing votes in favour of BJP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, UP CM Yogi Adityanth and other BJP leaders, while campaigning in the state, repeatedly accused the TMC of large-scale corruption, extortion and blocking the path of central welfare schemes. The BJP is hoping that these issues, combined with the anti-incumbency factor, will work in its favour. The TMC, on the other hand, has tried to portray BJP as a “party of outsiders” and contrasted it with Mamata being “Bengal’s own daughter”. The ruling party is also strongly banking on its welfare schemes such as Swastha Sathi to cross the final hurdle.

A strong fight between TMC and the Congress-Left-ISF alliance is expected to sway the Muslim vote in its favour. Mamata Banerjee’s appeal to not split the Muslim vote led to a campaigning ban being imposed on her by the EC.

The other crucial factor will be the SC vote, with TMC and BJP both vying for the larger share of the pie. Both the parties have made strong efforts to win over the Matuas who exercise a strong influence and can swing electoral fortunes in many seats. The BJP has tried to woo them by declaring that they would be awarded citizenship under CAA while TMC has said that they are already legal citizens.

Most exit polls have predicted that TMC will hold onto power in the state. The counting of votes will be held on May 2.

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