June 02, 2024

WB: People Defeat Fear and Coercion in the Fifth and Sixth Phases

Subinoy Moulik

NEAR the end of the election cycle, Trinamool Congress, under Mamata Banerjee's leadership, is increasingly relying on religious polarisation to maintain its eroding support base. Prime Minister Modi is also visiting the state frequently, making provocative statements to further fuel this polarisation and deepen the divide. Both parties are using religious polarisation to distract voters from issues like corruption, misgovernance, and criminalisation. However, this strategy appears to be losing effectiveness, as shown by the massive turnouts at Left parties' and Congress rallies. On the eve of the fifth phase, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury addressed large gatherings in Howrah, Liluah, and Barrackpore. On May 22, he attended a mega rally in Behala for the Kolkata South candidate Saira Shah Halim, addressed a large gathering in Jadavpur the next day for candidate Srijan Bhattacharya, and joined a massive rally the following day for Dumdum candidate Sujan Chakraborty.

With no other options left, the Trinamool Congress has resorted to coercive tactics, including beating, jailing, injuring, or even eliminating political opponents. Left-Congress candidates face campaign obstacles due to illegal gatherings and vandalism. On polling day, opposition polling agents are barred from booths, candidates' movements are blocked, and media workers' cars are vandalised. Tragically, two people were recently killed in Nandigram and Mahishadal for political reasons, both in the Tamluk Lok Sabha constituency.

Election violence in West Bengal is perpetuated by the state police, who either protect the mob or stand idle. This occurs year after year. Additionally, Trinamool has created a 'civic police' force for vote manipulation. What is more alarming now is that the central forces are also neglecting their duties by collaborating with local ruling party leaders. Despite Trinamool's attempts to discourage voter participation through intimidation, the people are resisting and rejecting fear-based narratives.

The fifth phase of elections in seven West Bengal constituencies (Arambag, Bangaon, Barrackpore, Howrah, Hooghly, Serampore, and Uluberia) saw sporadic disturbances. Nearly two thousand complaints were filed with the Election Commission, including 245 by CPI(M) and two by Congress. Trinamool-backed miscreants attacked CPI(M) polling agents, with incidents of violence in Barrackpore, Amdanga, Panchla, and other areas. CPI(M) and Congress leaders, activists, and common people faced intimidation and assault. Despite this, Left Front and Congress workers resisted Trinamool's attempts at booth capturing and vote looting.

A few examples are enough to understand the extent of Trinamool Congress's politics of violence. CPI (M) State Party Office worker Shankar Kundu was the party’s polling agent at booth number 72 in ward number 10 of Barrackpore municipality. Trinamool-backed miscreants attacked him on his way home after his shift, and he was admitted to a nearby hospital with serious injuries. CPI(M) worker MasudurRahman, the former panchayat pradhan in Sadhanpur panchayat area in Amdanga, ignored threats and served as a polling agent at a booth. Trinamool-backed miscreants attacked and beat him up on his way home in the afternoon. Masudur Rahman was taken to Amdanga primary health centre and later transferred to Barasat Hospital. Trinamool has carried out such acts in successive constituencies but has not been able to defeat the people's desire to vote. Left Front and Congress workers stood up against Trinamool’s attempts at booth capturing and vote looting in many areas.

In clear violation of EC rules, the election agent of the CPI(M) candidate was barred from entering several booths in Sankrail and Panchla assembly segments of the Howrah constituency, as well as in north and central Howrah. Despite the presence of central forces, coercion persisted, and voters were also prevented from entering the booths. Party leaders had to intervene to facilitate the re-entry of polling agents into the booths.

There were repeated incidents in some booths of Howrah's Ward No 26, which prompted                  CPI(M) candidate Sabyasachi Chatterjee to personally intervene and ensure that agents could carry out their assigned duties. In the North Howrah assembly segment, hoodlums backed by Trinamool attempted to intimidate voters and disrupt the polling process. Similar obstructions were reported in Sankrail. Furthermore, in Liluah, the house of the CPI(M) candidate's election agent, Robin Mete, was vandalised, and family members were assaulted by anti-socials affiliated with Trinamool.

In Bagnan, a part of the Uluberia constituency, women played a crucial role in preventing vote manipulation. These women strongly supported Azhar Mallick, the Congress candidate backed by the Left Front, and assisted voters in casting their ballots. However, despite their efforts, there were still instances of vote manipulation and voter intimidation. In the Kanpur area of Udaynarayanpur, agents of the Congress candidate were forcefully removed from booth numbers 98 and 99, and the candidate himself was attacked at the site. The perceived lack of action from the central forces was noted. Additionally, there were allegations of proxy voting in some booths of Amta, Uluberia, and Uluberia South against the Trinamool.

The primary challenge faced by Dipsita Dhar, the young candidate of the Shrirampur constituency, was ensuring that voters in specific segments of her constituency had access to polling booths. For years, people in areas such as Domjur and Jagatballavpur assembly segments had been denied their right to vote. Furthermore, the residents of Bankra had been unable to vote in consecutive elections due to the actions of the local Trinamool MLA and his team, who brazenly stripped away their voting rights. However, the CPI(M) successfully addressed this challenge. On the election day, numerous activists tirelessly supported the young candidate. Despite facing assaults and injuries, these dedicated workers persevered, even returning to their duties after seeking medical attention. As a result, CPI(M) 's efforts to restore the voting rights of the people, as she traversed from one end of the constituency to the other, elevated the electoral contest in Shrirampur to a new level in the test of democracy.

Throughout the sixth phase of voting on May 25, West Bengal experienced unrest and violence, with numerous incidents of booth capturing, rigged voting, and rampaging. These incidents exposed the inefficiency of the central forces and led to the harassment of ordinary voters. Trouble-makers supported by the ruling parties at both the Centre and the state were responsible for the reckless violence. The Election Commission itself had to acknowledge the disturbances. However, in many areas, local residents showed significant resistance against the disruptions, with Left and Congress workers actively protecting both the booths and the people's right to vote. On this day, voting took place for eight Lok Sabha constituencies: Bankura, Tamluk, Kanthi, Ghatal, Jhargram, Medinipur, Purulia, and Bishnupur. According to the Election Commission, the voter turnout until 5 pm was approximately 73 percent in the fifth phase, while now it has reached around 78 percent. Ariz Aftab, the chief electoral officer of the state, reported that 2100 complaints had been filed by 5 pm, leading to the arrest of 318 individuals.

The Trinamool and BJP held demonstrations of strength in Medinipur, Ghatal, as well as in Garbeta and Shalbani assembly segments within the Jhargram Lok Sabha constituency. In response, Left Front and Congress workers mobilized to assist voters amidst the chaos. Trinamool-backed goons launched attacks on Left Front workers in Keshpur, Salboni, and Garbeta, escalating tensions since Friday night. Road blockades were set up to prevent observers and central forces from accessing booths. Additionally, allegations of a soldier molesting a local woman in Debra, under the Ghatal Constituency, added to the turmoil.

CPI candidates Tapan Ganguly and Biplab Bhatta toured the areas, rallying voters and agents. CPI(M) candidate Sayan Banerjee, with the help of locals, foiled Trinamool's attempts to rig the Amgachia booth in Tamluk. Congress candidate Urvashi Banerjee Bhattacharya tirelessly visited booths to ensure fair polling. While Bankura experienced relatively peaceful polling, the ruling party made desperate attempts to manipulate votes in Khandaghosh. CPI(M) candidates Nilanjan Dasgupta and Shital Kaivarta made their presence felt at polling stations in Bankura and Bishnupur respectively. In Purulia, resistance against the ruling party's disruptive tactics resulted in largely peaceful polls, with only a few isolated incidents. Left Front-backed Congress candidate Nepal Mahato stood firmly with agents and voters. In Jhargram, CPI(M) candidate Sonamani Tudu diligently oversaw the polling process.

During a post-poll press conference, Mohammad Salim, CPI(M) state secretary, made allegations against the ruling party of the state and the ruling party at the center. He accused them of attempting to manipulate votes using thugs and the administration. Salim emphasized the importance of the Election Commission in ensuring a secure and fair voting process, even if it requires conducting re-elections. He criticised the reliance on local police, which he believed to be biased, and urged the Election Commission to take responsibility for deploying central forces effectively in the seventh and final stage.

Mohammad Salim claimed that the chief election officer had promised the presence of central forces and vowed to maintain peace. However, he expressed concerns about the activation of former militia forces affiliated with Maoists in Jhargram, Salbonia, and Garbeta. He alleged that these forces were being used to further the interests of the Trinamool party. Salim criticized Mamata Banerjee for integrating individuals with a history of violence into the police administration under the label of 'civic' home guards. He asserted that these individuals were now being employed to unlawfully influence voting and steal votes. Throughout the day, complaints regarding these issues were reportedly submitted to the commission.

Salim raised several concerns regarding the conduct of the elections. He highlighted malfunctions in the electronic voting machines (EVMs) at certain locations. In addition, there were cases where Trinamool miscreants prevented people from exercising their right to vote. Furthermore, Shubhendu Adhikari mobilised his former supporters to intimidate voters. The situations resembled panchayat elections, with crowds gathering around the EVMs. Miscreants also gathered within a 200-meter radius of the polling booths, intimidating voters. Trinamool made significant attempts to influence the central forces. Moreover, there are allegations that a member of the central forces molested the daughter of a Trinamool leader in Debra, where they were deployed. This raises questions about why the platoon was stationed in that specific location - was it an attempt to influence the central forces? The police administration and the Election Commission must provide explanations.

In response to the religion-centric campaigns of the BJP and TMC, Md Salim made a remark. He stated that Prime Minister Modi presents himself as an avatar, while the chief minister sees herself as a goddess. However, he emphasized the importance of having representatives in parliament who prioritise the rights of the people to basic necessities, rather than focusing on avatars or goddesses. During her campaign, Mamata Banerjee made references to Bharat Sevashram Sangha, Ramakrishna Mission, and some saints. On the other hand, the BJP focused on controversial issues such as the Ram Temple, Article 370, and the uniform civil code. Salim noted that neither party effectively addressed the real issues that impact people's livelihoods, which undermines the credibility of their campaigns in offering genuine solutions.

Salim observed that the strategy of religious polarisation used by both parties seems ineffective, as people are wise enough to recognise these tactics. They are more concerned about the tangible issues that affect their daily lives. He criticised the increasing reliance of the Trinamool Congress on violence and communal polarisation, as well as the BJP's attempts to exploit religious sentiments. These factors contribute to a gloomy political climate in West Bengal. However, Salim found hope in the resilience of the people and their determination to vote despite intimidation and violence. This suggests a promising future for democracy in the state.