In an unprecedented move, the Election Commission Wednesday invoked Article 324 of the Constitution to bring an early end to campaigning for the Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal, a day after Kolkata witnessed pitched street battles between BJP workers and TMC student wing members during BJP president Amit Shah’s roadshow in the city.
Citing the “safety and security” of voters in the state, the EC curtailed canvassing in nine Lok Sabha constituencies of West Bengal by 20 hours. It said campaigning in all forms will end at 10 pm Thursday, instead of 6 pm Friday. Musical concerts and theatrical performances related to polls, too, cannot be held once campaigning ends, the EC said.
The nine constituencies — Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jaynagar, Mathurapur, Jadavpur, Diamond Harbour, South and North Kolkata — go to polls in the last phase on May 19.
The poll panel, simultaneously, relieved from duty ADG (CID) Rajeev Kumar and asked him to report to the Ministry of Home Affairs by 10 am Thursday. The action, officials said, was based on the specific input that Kumar personally went to arrest someone “in the dead of the night” even though, as ADG (CID), he has no role in normal policing.
The EC also immediately removed state Principal Secretary, Home and Health Affairs, Atri Bhattacharya for having interfered in the poll process by advising the West Bengal Chief Electoral Officer on the deployment of local police. The state Chief Secretary has been asked to look after the Home Department.
The Commission said it was probably the first time that the panel had invoked Article 324 in this manner, “but it may not be last in case of repetition of lawlessness and violence which vitiate the conduct of polls in a peaceful manner”.
Article 324 of the Constitution states: “Superintendence, direction and control of elections to be vested in an Election Commission: (1) The superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every State and of elections to the offices of President and Vice President held under this Constitution shall be vested in a Commission (referred to in this Constitution as the Election Commission).”
Article 324, in other words, is EC’s “reservoir of power”, which is invoked whenever the existing legal provisions prove insufficient to deal with extraordinary situations that arise in the conduct of elections.
The EC has invoked Article 324 at least twice this poll season – to ban the screening of political biopics until the end of the Lok Sabha elections and to temporarily bar politicians making communally divisive statements from campaigning.
Wednesday’s decision to curtail campaigning in West Bengal was based on the report submitted by Deputy Election Commissioner Sudeep Jain, who took stock of the poll preparedness Monday, and another submitted jointly by special observers Ajay Nayak and Vivek Dubey.
Jain, in his report, had informed the Election Commissioners of a “distinct resistance and non-cooperation from the district administration and district police” in providing a “level-playing field to all candidates for campaigning” and “a fearless threat free environment to the voters”.
“The Observers pointed out that while on the surface, everything looks fine, but in their frank interactions with the public the fear psychosis that is widely prevalent comes out. They pointed out that utterances of the AITC (All India Trinamool Congress) senior leaders on the lines of ‘Central Forces will leave after the elections while we will remain’ sends a chilling message among the officers as well as voters alike,” he wrote in his report submitted to the EC.
Citing incidents of violence being reported in the state, the EC order states, “…these campaign related violent incidents are creating an atmosphere of fear and hatred in the polling areas which is affecting the overall electoral environment…”
Quoting from the order of a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the case of ‘ECI vs. State of Haryana (AIR 1984 SC 1406)’, the EC also wrote that its assessment of the law and order situation in a poll-going area prevails over that of the state government. The final decision to curtail the campaign in Bengal, the order notes, was taken to ensure “conduct of free, fair and peaceful election in the larger interest of strengthening democracy”.
Referring to the violence, Deputy Election Commissioner Chandra Bhushan Kumar said, “The Commission is deeply anguished at the vandalism done to the statue of respected late Shri Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyay (Vidyasagar). It is hoped that the vandals are traced by the state administration.”
Reacting to the EC’s decision, Union Minister Arun Jaitley tweeted, “A constitutional authority, the Election Commission of India, has effectively held Bengal to be a state in Anarchy…A free campaign is not possible and therefore the campaign has to be cut short. This is a classical case of breakdown of the Constitutional Machinery.”
The EC’s move drew sharp criticism from the Opposition. CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury tweeted, “If a ban is intended for 72 hours, why is it starting at 10pm tomorrow? Is it to allow the two rallies of the PM before that?”
Asked about the logic behind the EC’s decision to end campaigning at 10 pm Thursday, a senior EC official told The Indian Express, “We did not want to disrupt campaigning when it is at its peak. Moreover, this gives all political parties a chance to demonstrate their commitment to peaceful campaigning.” “The 10 pm deadline was kept keeping the Supreme Court order on the use of loudspeakers,” another senior EC official said.
Earlier, the EC had held a meeting through video conference with all observers posted in West Bengal. During the meeting, the observers are learnt to have been instructed on effective deployment of central armed forces on May 19 and also the proper use of Quick Response Teams (QRTs).
“They have been asked to closely monitor the time taken by the QRTs to respond to complaints on polling day,” said an official.