Not Covid. ‘Kolaveri’ Didi’s Demand To Merge Four Poll Phases Into One Is Sign Of Jitters About 2 May 

Not Covid. ‘Kolaveri’ Didi’s Demand To Merge Four Poll Phases Into One Is Sign Of Jitters About 2 May Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee
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  • If Mamata Didi truly believed that West Bengal could vote in one day or in fewer phases, she should have controlled the political violence in the run-up to the elections.

Mamata Banerjee’s demand to merge the remaining four days of polling in West Bengal into one is disingenuous. She has used the spike in covid infections as the reason for demanding this, but what it betrays is her jitters about the outcome.

The Election Commission, which had already announced polling dates in February, cannot now make drastic changes, since this will set a precedent and disrupt existing arrangements for the deployment of polling personnel and security resources.

It has rightly rejected the demand. What it can possibly do is curtail or ban campaign rallies and ask candidates to restrict messaging to digital and other safer modes till 29 April, the last day of polling.

Didi had asked for the same thing in February itself, when Covid did not look as bad as now.

She claimed that the stretched schedule was done for the benefit of the BJP. She also alleged discrimination since other states were holding single-day polling, including Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Without in any way denying the reality that elections create super-spreader opportunities for the virus, the assumption that holding polls on one day instead of four is going to prevent the spread of infections is questionable.

The polls are held in different constituencies with different campaign-end and polling dates. Whether so many people congregate for voting on one day or four will hardly make a difference, since the locations of polling stations are different. The same number of people will assemble at different places.

Why does Kolaveri Didi think one-day polling, or polling over fewer phases, is beneficial to her?

One possibility is that the BJP will then get more time to narrow-cast its messages to different segments using its popular national leaders. But if this is so, Mamata, as the only star campaigner for Trinamool, should be equally happy. She can then address more constituencies personally. In a one-day poll, her options are limited.

One can suspect that she is worried her opponents are making an impact and wants to contain further damage to her prospects in the remaining phases.

If anyone is to blame for West Bengal’s multi-phase polling, it is Mamata Didi herself. Over the last 10 years of her rule, she did nothing to dismantle the rule of private enforcement groups and violent elements in her state, which is what necessitated an eight-phase election. This is the only way to ensure that people are not intimidated into not voting.

As an aside one must note that if the BJP does indeed come to power in West Bengal after 2 May (counting day), law and order and police reform should be priority No 1, even ahead of economic revival.

Disarming and defanging private gangs and armies is central to the state’s economic revival, or else they will continue collecting taxes for private benefit.

The temptation for an inexperienced BJP team in the state will be to use the same thugs to maintain order, but this would mean the BJP will fail in its fundamental duty. Reduction of political violence as a factor in electoral outcomes and securing the lives and properties of citizens is a public good that Bengal has been denied for too long.

The real culprit is not multi-phase polling, but the growing importance of rallies and shows of strength in not only Bengal, but all over India. In the Pandharpur assembly by-elections in Maharashtra, whose outcome will not directly impact the stability of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi, rallies are being held in defiance of Covid protocols because neither BJP nor the Aghadi wants to lose face.

In West Bengal, rallies are being held for another reason: both parties, BJP and Trinamool, believe that without shows of strength, their voters may not turn up at polling booths.

The assumption is that a party must show that it is a potential winner for undecided voters to turn up and make a difference. This is true across states. In closely-fought elections, a small percentage of swing voters make all the difference between a hung house and a landslide. Rallies are a form of power projection in advance of polling day.

If Mamata Didi truly believed that West Bengal could vote in one day or in fewer phases, she should have controlled the political violence in the run-up to the elections, and also set an example by restricting her rallies and focusing on her message.

Instead, what she has been trying to prove is that she can organise larger rallies, Covid or no Covid. When Suvendhu Adhikari shifted to the BJP, she not only chose to fight from his constituency of Nandigram, but entered a war of rallies to prove she was the more popular leader.

Mamata Didi needs to ask herself one simple question: if she thinks a one-day poll will help her in West Bengal, isn’t it equally logical for her to be receptive to Narendra Modi’s call for one-nation-one-poll?

The logic of one-state-one-polling-day is not very different from Modi’s logic of restricting national and regional elections to one electoral cycle. It can help governance. But governance has not been Mamata Didi’s calling card, and that is why multi-phase polling cannot be avoided in her violence-prone state.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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