Violence, Voter Intimidation and a Missing Polling Officer: Why West Bengal Votes the Way it Does

Violence, Voter Intimidation and a Missing Polling Officer - Why West Bengal Votes the Way it Does
On Sunday, Mamata Banerjee claimed that officers sent by the Election Commission (EC) as special observers were insulting the people of West Bengal, that the BJP was trying to run a parallel government in the state through two retired officers.

Her fiery comment came in reaction to EC special observer in Bengal Ajay V Nayak comparing the present situation in West Bengal to what Bihar was around 15 years ago, leading to the demand of central forces in the ongoing Lok Sabha. Speaking at Gayeshpur in Nadia, Banerjee said, “The officers are abusing and insulting the people of the state. Two retired officers have been sent to run the government, this is unconstitutional. They are trying to help the BJP."

Banerjee’s allegation of a biased Election Commission working to aid the BJP isn’t new. Neither is the EC’s stance that in spite of electoral reforms across the country, electoral malpractices in Bengal remain a constant.

But political leaders from both the BJP and TMC admitted that the stakes in 2019 — that have already seen violence in the state, allegations of voter intimidation and a missing polling officer — were much higher. With Banerjee pitching herself for the top job of the country’s Prime Minister and the BJP looking to win 20 seats in the state, one BJP leader said, “The first two phases have just been the trailer. There will be more violence.”

‘Scientific Rigging Machinery’

In opposition, Banerjee had famously accused the Jyoti Basu-led government of creating a ‘scientific rigging machinery’. This, officials in the EC and state police told News18, still exists and is constantly evolving. “Traditionally, the party in power would try and enroll bogus voters, or identify and delete names of people who’re likely to vote against them. Driving out the polling agents from rival parties…this happens less now,” said an EC official.

Instead, the focus — two decades since TN Seshan effectively cleaned up elections elsewhere in the country — is on more subtle forms of intimidation and the “perfecting of the CPI(M)’s surveillance machinery that the TMC inherited”, said a senior IPS official, adding, “If anything, the CPI(M) was an organised party. The TMC is more disorganised, so the results are often more visible. But equally effective.”

But with electoral roll cleansing top on the priority for the EC, striking off bogus voters, the opposition alleged that the TMC’s focus was instead on surveillance. A BJP state committee leader told News18, “In Bengal, everyone knows which ward they live in. Something unheard off in many parts of India. This is a legacy of the Left which organised its party down to the ward level. The TMC doesn’t have the same structure, but it has a network of clubs that operate out of different areas and have the same function.”

The function of this state machinery, the leader explained, is “to act as an all-seeing, all-knowing extension of the party that, most importantly, knows who will not vote for them.”

‘Violence is Inevitable, But Not Random’

“Jhamela to hobe,” said a TMC leader at Barrackpore, when asked about the possibility of violence in the seat that will see the party’s Dinesh Trivedi square up against former TMC strongman-turned-BJP-candidate Arjun Singh. The seat has seen the TMC allege on multiple occasions that Singh has violated the model code of conduct and has been threatening party workers. “A number of party workers have been threatened and many, out of fear, have joined the BJP. This changes the ground reality on the day of the polls,” said the TMC leader.

Political violence and voter intimidation, the leader said, was just “part and parcel of politics here”. He doesn’t seem wrong. Consider this: During the second phase — when Darjeeling, Raiganj and Jalpaiguri went to polls — incumbent MP Mohammed Salim’s car was vandalised when he went to caste vote within 100 metres of a polling station in Islampur’s Patagara. Elsewhere, a journalist — attempting to film locals who claimed that they weren’t able to vote — was allegedly attacked by TMC cadre at Raiganj. Locals at Chopra in Darjeeling blocked a national highway, claiming they weren’t able to vote. At Jalpaiguri, the TMC cadre allegedly fired near a polling state at Jalpaiguri.

“Violence is inevitable here. But it is not random,” said a retired IAS officer, on the condition of anonymity. “In Bengal, before an election, leaders will sit down with the details of a seat. Which ward voted for who, where, say the BJP led, or where the TMC led. Then on the basis of that, and on the basis of inputs from the local leadership, the violence on the polling day would be directed. Take Jalpaiguri for instance … after the shots were fired, no one came to vote for hours. That is a very subtle form of voter intimidation,” the officer said.

Ahead of the 2016 elections, Lodhna village in Bardhaman's Khandagosh Assembly constituency, an area once synonymous with the Left and the manufacture of bombs for ‘political purposes’, post poll violence led to the death of two CPI(M) party workers. Mohammad Saifudin, a local resident, told News18, “Until then, many in the village were still holding on to the belief that the lal party (Left) would come back with support from the Congress. After the deaths and the result, the village sullenly switched to the TMC. It was a clear message.”

The retired official added, "This isn't to say that it is localised to one party. Where the BJP is strong, it will do the same things. Since the TMC, like the Left before, dominates the state, you heard about them more. This is just how elections are done in this state."

The Missing Polling Officer

Arnab Roy, a 30-year-old nodal election officer has now been missing since Thursday from Nadia district in Bengal. He was posted at Bipradas Pal Choudhury Polytechnic College for poll duty on April 18 and was in-charge of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPATs) in the Ranaghat parliamentary constituency. The BJP has raised concerns regarding the sanctity of the EVMs.

The police said that at around 2pm on Thursday Roy went to eat lunch and hasn’t been since seen. His two phones, police said, were switched off and his car was found parked in the college. The state EC has asked the district magistrate, Sumit Gupta, to look into the matter.

Election Commission special observer in Bengal, Ajay Naik, had told reporters that his disappearance was “personal” and that he may have been suffering from depression. “For now, it seems like the disappearance is not election-related. We have appointed someone else in his place," he said.

In response, his wife Anisha Jash wrote, “I want to clarify that my husband, Arnab Roy, is not suffering from depression and we have a healthy and hearty relationship. I request the media to stop spreading rumours and instead help me find him... I want my husband back."

The BJP, meanwhile, has raised concerns regarding the “sanctity of EVMs”. BJP leader Sishir Bajoria told News18, “We are very concerned about his well-being and also of the sanctity of the EVMs as he is the nodal officer.”

Mamata Banerjee claimed that officers sent by the Election Commission (EC) as special observers were insulting the people of West Bengal, that the BJP was trying to run a parallel government in the state through two retired officers.

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