EC cuts short poll campaign by 19 hours in West Bengal

EC cuts short poll campaign by 19 hours in West Bengal

BJP National President Amit Shah during a roadshow for the last phase of Lok Sabha elections 2019, in Kolkata, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (PTI Photo)

The Election Commission on Wednesday decided to cut short the campaign period by 19 hours for West Bengal, where voting is scheduled to take place in nine parliamentary constituencies in the final phase of the Lok Sabha polls next Sunday.

The EC decided to advance the commencement of campaign silence period from 5 p.m. on Friday to 10 p.m. on Thursday. The poll-panel took the apparently unprecedented move to shorten the period for electioneering in view of the “recent developments in West Bengal”, including violent clashes during Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah's “roadshow” in Kolkata and vandalization of a statue of 19th century Bengal Renaissance icon Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar on Tuesday. The commission also relieved a top bureaucrat of West Bengal Government and removed a senior Indian Police Service officer from the State.

The poll panel's decision to shorten the period for electioneering, however, will not have any effect on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's plan to hold two rallies in West Bengal on Thursday in support of the BJP candidates, as the campaign silence period would start only at 10 p.m.

Not only the Trinamool Congress, which has been in power in West Bengal since 2011, but the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) too raised questions over the EC's decision, as it left the window open for Modi to campaign in the State on Thursday.

The EC removed Rajeev Kumar, Additional Director General of Crime Investigation Department of West Bengal Police, from the state and attached him with the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi. The BJP has been demanding his removal, alleging that he has been close to state's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress.

Kumar is under the scanner of the Central Bureau of Investigation in connection with a police probe into a chit fund scam, which some Trinamool Congress leaders were also involved in. He has been asked to report at the MHA headquarters in New Delhi at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, Deputy Election Commissioner, Sudeep Jain, said.

The commission also relieved Atri Bhattacharya, Principal Secretary (Home and Hill Affairs) of West Bengal Government, from his current post. It held that Bhattacharya “interfered in the process of conducting the elections”, by recently writing to the state's Chief Electoral Officer, Aariz Aftab, alleging that the central paramilitary personnel deployed on poll duty were using excessive forces and intimidating voters.

The commission entrusted the state's Chief Secretary Malay De with the additional responsibility of Home Department too, said Jain.

“This would probably be the first time when the ECI (Election Commission of India) invoked the Article 324 (of the Constitution of India, which empowers the commission to conduct elections) in this manner,” Chandra Bhushan Kumar, another Deputy Election Commissioner, said. “But”, he added, “it may not be the last in cases of repeition of lawlessness and violence, which vitiated the conduct of the polls in a peaceful and orderly manner”. The EC said that it was deeply anguished over vandalization of the statue of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar in Kolkata on Tuesday. “It is hoped that the vandals are traced by the state administration.”

The BJP and the Trinamool Congress leaders separately met the EC on Tuesday and Wednesday, complaining against each other for the violence in Kolkata on Tuesday. Shah earlier on Wednesday accused Banerjee of instigating violence against the BJP and the EC of being a “mute spectator” to the reign of terror unleashed by her party. The Trinamool Congress too submitted to the EC some videos, which it claimed proved that the “BJP goons” had triggered the violence and desecrated Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar's bust.

Voting has already been completed in 33 of the 42 parliamentary constituencies in West Bengal, while the remaining nine are scheduled to go to polls in the last of the seven phases of polling for the Lok Sabha elections – along with 50 other constituencies elsewhere across the country.

The BJP has emerged as the principal challenger to Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.