Mockery Of Democracy Has Gone On Far Too Long In Bengal

by Jaideep Mazumdar - May 17, 2017 06:13 AM +05:30 IST
Mockery Of Democracy Has Gone On Far Too Long In BengalPoll violence in West Bengal. (Photo Credit: Twitter)
Snapshot
  • Rigging has been happening with sickening regularity in successive polls in Bengal, be they to the Lok Sabha, Assembly, civic bodies or panchayats, since the early 1970s.

    And it is thus high time now for the Election Commission to act and frame a special set of safeguards to ensure free and fair polls in states like Bengal, and also Tripura and Kerala which share many political traits with Bengal.

Sunday’s sham polls to three civic bodies in the plains of Bengal has shown, once again, how successive ruling parties in Bengal have been holding this fundamental democratic exercise to ransom and making a mockery of it.

Rigging has been happening with sickening regularity in successive polls in Bengal, be they to the Lok Sabha, Assembly, civic bodies or panchayats, since the early 1970s.

And it is thus high time now for the Election Commission to act and frame a special set of safeguards to ensure free and fair polls in states like Bengal, and also Tripura and Kerala which share many political traits with Bengal.

Sunday’s polls to the municipalities of Pujali (in South 24 Parganas district), Domkal (in Murshidabad district) and Raiganj (North Dinajpur district) were marred by Trinamool goons hurling bombs, displaying illegal arms, attacking polling stations, chasing away poll officials, attacking cops wherever they dared to intervene, breaking electronic voting machines (EVMs), intimidating voters and casting false votes. Local newspapers and television channels have detailed the violence at the hands of Trinamool hoodlums.

In stark contrast, elections to four municipalities in the hills of Bengal were totally peaceful.

The violence, quite high and blatant even by Bengal’s murky standards, was followed by the unprecedented act of the Congress and the left lodging a police complaint against state poll panel chief A K Singh for being complicit in the rigging. All the major opposition parties withdrew their candidates in protest against the rigging and have been demanding re-polls. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led in demanding the replacement of the poll panel chief by a neutral officer.

That the polls were rigged are evident from the polling figures released by the poll panel itself. The turnout of voters was quite normal at the end of the first hour of polling at 9 am (polling started at 8 am): the turnout was 18.5 per cent at Raigunj, 19.2 per cent at Domkal and 21.2 per cent at Pujali. This being the summer season in Bengal and with humidity being high, voters prefer to exercise their franchise before noon.

According to media reports, Trinamool set its goons loose soon after 9 am. And as violence peaked, so did polling. By 11 am, the number of votes recorded in the EVMs at Raigunj had shot up to 41 per cent (an increase of 22.5 per cent), to 42.9 per cent(an increase of 23.7 per cent) at Domkal and to 49.6 per cent(an increase of 28.4 per cent) at Pujali.

But this spike defies logic. As psephologist Arvind Sundaram explains, poll violence drives away genuine voters from the booths since they are peace-loving and avoid trouble. “With genuine voters fleeing the booths due to violence or remaining within the safety of their homes, the polling percentage should drop during and immediately after the violence till such time that security forces enforce their presence and instill confidence among the voters. But if the poll percentage remains unaffected or increases during and immediately after violence, it is a sure sign that the polls have been rigged and false votes have been recorded in the EVMs by the party or parties orchestrating the violence,” he explained.

State election commissioner A K Singh, a retired Bengal cadre IAS officer, refused to entertain complaints lodged by the opposition parties and did not meet delegations of senior opposition leaders, thus angering them. “The state poll panel has always been biased. We asked for deployment of central forces in the plains apprehending trouble, but the poll panel refused and, instead, deployed central forces in the hills as per the bidding of the Trinamool,” said former state BJP chief Rahul Sinha.

Sunday’s rigged poll has once again brought to the fore the urgent need to ensure free and fair polls in Bengal, which has a long history of poll violence. It was actually the Congress that started this shameful practice in the late 1960s when it started losing popular support. Though its rigging could not win it power in the 1967 and 1969 Assembly polls, it succeeded in 1972. So massive was the scale of rigging in 1972 that even Jyoti Basu (who went on to misrule Bengal and preside over the state’s decline for 23 years from 1977) withdrew from the fray in protest.

After the Left Front came to power in 1977, rigging was perfected into a fine art. The term scientific rigging gained currency during the left rule. It was termed so since the rigging process was silent and highly organised: it started with manipulating the electoral rolls, intimidation of opposition candidates and their families to dissuade them from contesting polls, scaring away voters with violence and then stuffing ballot boxes with false votes.

The Trinamool, of course, does not have the time or patience for the niceties of subtle rigging; it is more blatant and ham-handed. As this article on the Trinamool’s rigging points out, Mamata Banerjee’s men rely more on bombs, abuses and intimidation. The state police and the polling officials (who are state government employees) are either silent or mute spectators to such rigging over the last seven years, or are actively involved in the rigging.

Given these factors, a ruling party that has no qualms about rigging the poll process, a highly politicised police force and state administration that is complicit in the rigging, and a spineless state election commission that has been co-opted by the ruling party -it is high time the Election Commission of India (ECI) gets into the act.

The ECI conducts Assembly and parliamentary polls all over the country and has been very successful in ensuring free and fair polls everywhere. In Bengal, Tripura and Kerala (which share the legacy of political violence), the ECI’s attempts to cleanse the polls of rigging has not been fully successful. Hence, it needs to frame special rules and practices for these three states.

But the ECI should start with Bengal where the crucial panchayat polls are scheduled next year. Faced with a tough challenge from the BJP, the Trinamool will be hell-bent on rigging the rural polls and will use every trick in the book to win the polls. This is what the ECI has to prevent. First, the ECI has to take it upon itself to conduct the rural polls and not leave this task to the spineless state election commission which is staffed by pliant officers who have no powers. The poll panel in Bengal should actually be disbanded.

Next, the ECI has to deploy central forces to man polling stations and the peripheries of polling stations and keep the state police confined to their barracks. The state police should have no role to play in the poll process. Apart from deploying an army of election observers, the ECI should also draft officials from other states to man polling stations or, if that presents too much of a logistical challenge, at least ensure that an officer from another state is in charge of a polling station.

The ECI should install CCTV cameras inside all polling booths and conduct the polls over many phases. And it should act immediately on complaints of malpractices and disqualify candidates whose supporters or party colleagues attempt to rig polls.

It is incumbent on the ECI to frame very strict rules and ensure their meticulous compliance. This is necessary to restore the confidence of the electorate in the poll process and, thus, in democracy. Elections have become a joke in Bengal, and this joke has gone on for far too long. Also, this joke was never an amusing one.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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