By Uday Basu
The eighth and last phase of polling in West Bengal across four districts, including parts of Kolkata, will be held on April 29 in the unusual backdrop of the Election Commission (EC) being literally in the dock for its handling of the entire poll process in the midst of the ravaging COVID-19 second wave. The ruling Trinamool Congress, which has been facing the toughest challenge ever from a resurgent BJP, has found a new stick to beat the EC with. It has clutched the issue of poor handling of the pandemic by the Centre and the crumbling health infrastructure to corner the BJP in the last phase when the fate of 35 seats - six in Malda, 11 each in Murshidabad and Birbhum and seven in Kolkata North - will be decided.
During the entire electioneering the Trinamool has gone hammer and tongs against the EC accusing it of working at the behest of the ruling BJP at the Centre. This is because the staggering of the polls in the state in eight phases and mobilisation of the central forces in the polling stations in an unprecedented manner by the EC has put the ruling party at a great disadvantage. Its cadres have failed to employ their normal tactic of intimidating voters and manipulating polling as they allegedly did rampantly in the last panchayat poll.
However, the brazen flouting of COVID protocol by political parties and their top leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah during electioneering and the EC’s failure to enforce it have injected fear among the electorate about being infected by the COVID virus because of the polling. The daily caseload of over 3.6 lakh on an average for the past few days, woefully inadequate vaccines, hospital beds, oxygen, immunity-boosting medicines and testing facilities throughout the country have turned public opinion against the Modi government. It is doubtful to what extent Mr Modi’s oratorical skill and popularity will help the BJP at the last phase of the Bengal poll.
The Madras High Court’s reprimand of the EC came at the most inopportune moment for the BJP. The Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee made stinging observations indicting the EC holding it singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19 by not stopping political parties from holding election rallies. It upbraided the EC in the harshest of language calling its officers murderers.
“Your institution is singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19. Election Commission officers should be booked on murder charges probably,” the HC said.
Though the indictment was a reflection of the whole country’s anger at the inept and spineless conduct of simultaneous polling in four states, the Trinamool is predictably using it to reap electoral gain.
The Madras HC went on to warn that it will stop counting on May 2 if the Election Commission does not put in place a proper plan to ensure that the Covid-19 protocol is followed.
The court said public health is of paramount importance and that it was distressing to see that constitutional authorities have to be reminded of it.
This is not only music to Trinamool’s ears, its supremo and Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has hailed the Madras High Court ruling and said her party will move the Supreme Court against the EC and seek withdrawal of central forces in the final phase of polling to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
It does not matter whether her threat is really translated into action. The main objective is to use the new development for electoral gain. The superspread of the COVID pandemic is now being used by the ruling Trinamool to divert the electorate’s attention from anti-incumbency and project the BJP as a party that can only bring untold miseries to the people.
West Bengal was the first state to show a clear upward trend of new cases in the second half of March. The EC issued warnings, but by the time they officially banned rallies in the state on April 22, the increase in cases was already on the uptick.
The Union Home Minister has weakened his party’s case by asserting that it is wrong to attribute the new surge of the virus to elections as there has also been an increase in cases in states where there were no elections such as Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. This is false logic. The rise in the caseload in the second wave has been due to different reasons in different states and in the case of Bengal, election played a crucial role.
Hence, the Trinamool is desperate to make the most of the pandemic at the last leg of the poll and the BJP is clearly on the defensive for its colossal failure to come to the rescue of millions groaning under the COVID-19. Issues such as alleged corruption by Trinamool functionaries, the ruling party’s minority appeasement, discrimination against scheduled caste, scheduled tribe population or Hindu consolidation for the BJP have been sidelined.
However, it’s anybody’s guess whether the voters in the last phase have already made up their mind swayed by the aggressive campaigns by the Modi-Shah-Nadda (BJP national president JP Nadda) troika.
The author is PoliticalAnalyst, associated with Peoples Pulse, Political Research Organization.