West Bengal: Way forward for Election Commission

By end of the fourth phase of LS Poll 2019, West Bengal has emerged as the only ‘deeply troubled’ state in the whole country. Violence and rigging manifested in multiple forms and prevented sizeable section of voters from asserting their electoral choices freely. It is a matter of profound of shame for both the state and the country. India today is not of 1960s or 1970s. She is on the threshold of becoming a world power, having already become the fifth largest country in terms of economy and military power. It is intriguing that  in such a promising country ‘democracy’ is being throttled in one ‘state’ only, while people in other states have been exercising their choice freely and without fear. Questions are bound to arise and in fact arising as to role of the Election Commission.

As time passes, it does appear that the EC has not been able to assess the kind of challenges it has been put to in this highly populous eastern state ridden with complex demographic problems and violent political legacy. It has to blame itself for right from the ‘start’ there were numerous indications which it chose to ignore. For example, at an early stage it could not identify and handle an ominous threat that was hidden in a clever mix of the roles of ruling ‘party’ and the ‘state government’. In response to EC’s transferring two commissioners of police and two superintendents of police on April 5, the head of the state government had famously said : ‘You did it illegally. But whoever you change are all our people’. By taking no ‘suo moto’ action on such a ‘loaded’ statement, the EC, by implication lent a tacit and moral endorsement of that position, which is now manifesting in many vicious forms.

It is plain and simple that the EC is essentially dependent on bureaucracy of the state government to conduct the poll. Conducting free and fair poll is impossible if the latter becomes partial to the ruling party, for whatever reason, fear or favour or any other. There are ‘n’ number of ways such partiality can manifest to the advantage of the ruling party. For example, it is the state bureaucracy donning the role of EC official decide deployment of central forces. They can decisively influence the effectiveness of these forces, however large. Another example is the manner in which things happen inside the ‘polling booth’, where the central forces are not allowed access. That is the ultimate point, where democracy can be marred or mauled in ‘n’ number of ways clandestinely if the presiding officer is compromised- whether due to loyalty to ruling party, anticipation of reward or simply fear.

Four phases of polls in West Bengal have indicated various kinds of electoral malpractices. There have been allegations of proxy votes, selectively obstructing voters from reaching polling booths, hurling of bombs at booths, clashes of political workers with security forces, assaulting media persons, threatening polling agents of opposition parties from coming to polling booths and throwing them out if they turned up and more . There has also been post-poll violence in some places, all of which have been building up fear psychosis in general voters.

Most worrisome fact about Bengal is that incidents of violence have not abated effectively despite central forces. Asansol in the fourth phase is a burning testimony to it. Despite providing central forces to 100% booths, this constituency allegedly witnessed proxy votes, removal of polling agents of rival parties, inter party clashes, lathi charge, attacking media personnel and more. This clearly reinforces the assumption that the root of the evil lies much deeper. Such extensive irregularities could not take place, despite 100% central forces, unless the state bureaucracy in charge of conducting elections had failed, for whatever reason.

Clearly the EC is, seemingly, treating the case of West Bengal in a routine manner such as raising the level of security at booth, activating Quick Response Team, and finally ordering re-poll in few booths. These are grossly inadequate. Any discerning observer of Bengal knows that the state is marked by a political culture of extreme intolerance against opposition political parties and a generally poor law and order situation. Frequent media reports of discovery of bombs, explosives and illegal fire arms in its various parts suggests a pervasive ambience of fear and also explain the rampant use of fire weapons to scare voters in places on polling days and wreak vengeance on supporters of rival parties after polling is over.

EC’s actions to complaints have been ‘case-specific’ like sending forces to venue of violence or ordering re-poll in extreme cases, as said earlier. The problem with such an approach is that though the miscreants may disappear at the sight of the ‘force’, each such case of violence would have  led to multiplier effect already that cannot be reversed. Thus, It would have panicked people in hundreds and thousands and dissuaded them from turning up towards the booths. Worse still is goons casting their votes under indulgence of booth officials.

A general clime of lawlessness, violence, scatter of fire arms, and fear coupled with a bureaucracy pliant to the ruling political party constitutes a deadly cocktail which is throttling democracy in the State. With its traditional approach the EC seems to be clueless. To make matter worse, the ruling party is also resorting to pressure tactics by challenging its impartiality and demanding removal of the special observers. It was able to get the posting of KK Sharma, the special police observer, cancelled on March 28. In his place the EC appointed Vivek Dubey. Later, on April 20 it demanded removal of special observer Ajay V Nayak for comparing Bengal’s situation with Bihar of 10 to 15 years ago. Next day the TMC supremo in an election rally attacked BJP for trying to run parallel government with two retired officers i.e., the special police observer and the special observer and added that Bengal will not tolerate any kind of abuse.

If the EC continues in the same way during the remaining three phases, things are likely to be worse. It will end up being indicted at the bar of history for two prime reasons. First, despite having the full recourse to the might of a strong powerful nation of India’s stature, it would have failed to stand up to the challenge of one political party in conducting a free and fair poll in one single ‘state’. Second, it would have set up an unhealthy precedent and this ‘West Bengal Model’ may be lapped up by ruling parties in other states. This means denigrating federal structure, undermining the central government, and disallowing people to exercise voting rights freely. In other words,  once a party comes to power in a state it would be encouraged to use every means available including patently undemocratic ones to cling to power.

If the EC top officials do not want to be remembered for causing a permanent harm to the democratic political culture of India, it will have to think out of box and act promptly, firmly with courage. It is a constitutional body vested with responsibility to preserve the democratic polity of India. But we have seen already it is being admonished by the apex court for failing to act firm. It does not have the luxury of time. The fifth phase in knocking at the door. Fortunately, it is facing grave challenge from one State only and it must fetch a proper and fitting response.

Capacity to use ‘power’ is a different trait than merely to ‘have’ it. TN Seshan, former CEC had demonstrated the use of power in optimum and purposeful manner thereby uplifting the respect for the EC as an institution in public esteem and restoring democracy in several trouble-torn states in challenging times (1990-96). The present EC must go through the Constitution, Representation of Peoples Act and every other relevant pieces of legislation to find out every possible means available in its hands to deal with the special situation of West Bengal.

If there is really no recourse and there exists no other way to ascertain free will of people except under complete care of the armed forces or auspices of the Governor’s role, the EC  must say so without hesitation. Instead if it continues with the remaining three phases in a mechanistic way, that would only legitimise a rigged election and impair the future policies of the Central Government. West Bengal is posing a grim challenge to the Election Commission and the Commission has to rise to its full potential to meet it! Entire country has its gaze fixed on the Commission.

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