If the Election Commission’s order to close campaigning in West Bengal a day earlier than scheduled is any indication, all lovers of democracy must worry not just about what will happen on 19 May, the last phase of polling, but afterwards. The state’s Chief Minister is threatening revenge in no uncertain terms, and this means West Bengal could see Trinamool’s political opponents being physically targeted once the Election Commission packs its bags and leaves a few days after 23 May, when results will be announced.
The real prospect of a constitutional breakdown looms after 23 May, even as it has been seriously damaged during this election season where Mamata Banerjee has unexpectedly faced a rising Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tide.
The surprise is that it took the Election Commission six phases of violence and the prospect of more intimidation and violence in the last phase to finally act in West Bengal. It tells us that if a state government is determined to use its police and administrative machinery to carry out its political agenda, even the Election Commission can do little about it. Once it is gone, and the state left to its own devices, it will be upto the courts to ensure that violence and intimidation is put down.
Yesterday (15 May), the Election Commission used Article 324 to curtail campaigning by a day to 10 pm on Thursday (instead of 6 pm on Friday) for Sunday’s last phase of polling to nine seats in Mamata Banerjee’s home turf, citing “the fear psychosis that is widely prevalent” in that beleaguered state. Under Article 324 of the Constitution, the responsibility for “the superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections… shall be vested in… the Election Commission.” This article has rarely ever been used to ensure free and fair polling in any state of national elections.
Nine mostly urban West Bengal seats – Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jaynagar, Mathurapur, Jadavpur, Diamond Harbour, South and North Kolkata – will vote this Sunday.
The Election Commission, while relieving Banerjee’s crony police officer Rajeev Kumar from his role as ADG CID and her Principal Secretary for Home and Health Affairs, Atri Bhattacharya, for interfering in the election process, made a damning comment against the state.
It said: “There is distinct resistance and non-cooperation from the district administration and district police when it comes to providing (a) level playing field to all candidates for campaigning and in providing a fearless, threat-free environment to the voters. The (poll) observers pointed out that while on the surface everything looks fine, in their interaction with the public, the fear psychosis that is widely prevalent comes out.”
If one were to read this indictment of the state administration in simple terms, the Election Commission is essentially saying that the state has not been able to deliver on the basic requirement of law and order so that people can exercise their franchise freely and without fear.
In the worst days of Tamil Nadu’s vendetta politics era, where the personal animosities of M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa were on regular public display, or even the tension-filled days of the Mayawati-Mulayam Singh Yadav confrontations of the 1990s in Uttar Pradesh, neither state had to face this kind of action by the Election Commission during polls. Nor did this ever happen in previously violence-prone Bihar or Jharkhand or the Maoist-affected areas of Chhattisgarh.
Mamata Banerjee is solely responsible for bringing disrepute to West Bengal, the state of national heroes and reformists like Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Bankim Chandra, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sri Aurobindo, and saints like Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, to name just a few. That the bust of Vidyasagar was damaged by goons goes to show the level of lawlessness in the state, and it is almost immaterial whether this sacrilege was done by the goons of Trinamool Congress or the BJP.
When a chief minister not only brings the Prime Minister’s spouse into her gunsights, if a BJP worker in the state is arrested for a harmless meme that was in no way derogatory to Mamata, if leaders of a rival political party can be arbitrarily denied permissions to hold election rallies, and if she can threaten revenge on the BJP after the elections are over, we are essentially talking about a state approaching constitutional breakdown.
The Telegraph, no admirer of Modi, quoted Mamata Banerjee’s threats after the sixth phase of polling, where central forces were visible in large numbers to prevent voter intimidation: “Since morning, the central forces have been creating a lot of troubles, beating up and coercing voters. Law and order is a state subject, but they have tried to take control of it. Remember, the elections are here for a few more days, after which they will go. Then, there will be inch by inch badla.”
If a chief minister can threaten inch-by-inch badla on her political opponents once the Election Commission packs its bags and leaves, we need to reckon with the possibility of Kolaveri Didi physically targeting her political opponents after the elections.
To repeat, West Bengal’s lurch towards anarchy and violence may get worse if 23 May produces results that are unflattering to Mamata Banerjee. The courts and the media need to be watchful.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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