As the EC’s decision to hold assembly elections in West Bengal in eight phases triggered sharp criticism from the state chief minister and others, two former chief election commissioners on Friday justified the move, saying that the decision must have been based on a law and order situation assessment while another CEC advocated single-phase election given that rumours fly thick and fast in this age of social media. Referring to seven-phase voting in West Bengal during 2016 assembly polls, former CECs –OP Rawat and N Gopalaswami– noted that whenever the EC feels there is enhanced security requirements based on ground realities, it takes these precautions.
Though he noted that the EC’s decision must be based on its assessment of the law and order situation and availability of security forces, SY Quraishi, who was the CEC from July 30, 2010 to June 10, 2012, said in the age of social media wherein all kinds of rumours fly thick and fast during elections, there should be an attempt to reduce the duration and number of phases. ”Ideally, it should be a single-phase election,” he added. The Election Commission on Friday announced the poll schedule for five assemblies –Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry– with West Bengal to have the maximum eight phases from March 27. Immediately after the announcement, TMC chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee criticised the EC decision and said she suspects that the dates were announced as per the suggestions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah for better management of the BJP’s poll campaign.
Senior Congress leader Tariq Anwar also attacked the EC, alleging that the poll panel has tried to help the BJP. ”I believe it has been done deliberately and in a way, the EC has tried to help the BJP. They (BJP) feel that it will help them, but it will not as far as I know about the people of Bengal. They are revolutionary in nature…they may deviate for some time but ultimately, Bengal is Bengal,” Anwar said.
Justifying the poll panel’s decision, Rawat said,”the EC in its own wisdom might have felt this time it is more contentious and so more security measures required. Accordingly, it has decided to hold the elections in eight phases. Rawat, who joined the poll panel in 2015 and retired as the CEC in December 2018, said, ”whenever the Commission feels there is requirement of more security so that nobody faces any problem, it takes those precautions.
Asserting that it was for the EC, based on ground realities, to assess, Gopalaswami, who headed the poll panel from 30 June 2006 to 20 April 2009, said look at the number of polling stations (in West Bengal) which have been increased due to Covid (distancing norms), one will get the answer. ”You need forces. West Bengal is much bigger in size and needs a higher number of central forces. The total number of polling stations in West Bengal is 1,01,916 instead of 77,413 in 2016 polls — an increase of 31.65 per cent.
Due to COVID norms, the number of voters per polling station has been restricted to 1000 from 1500,” he added. Quraishi said the commission’s decision to hold the election in eight phases spread over a month must be based on its assessment of the law and order situation and availability of security forces.
”Bengal has the tradition of multi-phase elections,” he said, adding that there is not much difference between seven and eight phases. Quraishi, however, advocated holding elections in a single phase. ”In the age of social media wherein all kinds of rumours fly thick and fast, there will be an attempt to reduce the duration of elections and number of phases. With more paramilitary forces being available , one hope as soon as possible the number of phases will be reduced. Ideally, it should be a single-phase election,” he said. The EC said the assembly polls in 294 constituencies in West Bengal will be held in eight phases between March 27 and April 29. The counting of votes will take place on May 2, along with that of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
Polling in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry will be held in one phase on April 6, while Assam will go to polls in three phases on March 27, April 1 and April 6. Reacting to the EC’s decision, Banerjee said, ”with all due respect to the Commission, I want to say that questions are being raised on why elections will be held in so many phases in Bengal while other states will be voting in one phase. If EC doesn’t provide justice to the people, where will the people go.” I have information from my sources that the poll dates are similar to the ones BJP wanted. Have the dates been announced as per the suggestions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah? The PM and the home minister cannot misuse their power for the state elections,” she claimed.