In the ongoing West Bengal assembly polls, the Election Commission (EC) faces its toughest credibility test in recent times. The state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) alleges that EC “appears to be under the command" of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On the other hand, the BJP argues that the poll watchdog is not as swift or stringent against chief minister Mamata Banerjee as it should have been.
The TMC described EC’s Monday move to ban Banerjee from campaigning for 24 hours as a “black day for democracy”. On Tuesday, the CM sat on a protest in Kolkata against the move. Later in the night, she will hold two rallies after the ban ends at 8pm.
This came after her controversial speeches appealing to Muslim voters to unite behind the TMC, and later asking people to gherao central forces if they impede voting. Leaders in the BJP told News18 that the ban should have been more stringent, for at least 72 hours.
“EC generally bans campaigners for hate speeches. In this case, a blatant communal call was coupled with a threat to security forces that led to a serious law-and-order situation in Sitalkuchi, where five people lost their lives (in the fourth phase of polling on April 10),” a BJP leader said.
In the past, EC has banned campaigners for longer periods, according to BJP leaders.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath was banned for 72 hours for his “Ali-Bajrangbali” comments, while Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s Mayawati was banned for 48 hours for appealing to Muslim voters not to vote for the Congress. The same year, Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Azam Khan and the BJP’s Maneka Gandhi were banned for 72 hours and 48 hours, respectively. Khan made an objectionable remark on Jaya Prada. Gandhi asked Muslims to vote for her. Pragya Thakur, too, was banned for 72 hours in 2019.
In 2020, EC banned BJP leaders Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma for 72 hours and 96 hours, respectively, during the Delhi elections. “But Banerjee is still getting a kid-glove treatment,” the BJP leader told News18.
EC is, however, facing more fire from the TMC with CM Banerjee saying the poll watchdog should rename its Model Code of Conduct the “Modi Code of Conduct”.The TMC has questioned why no action was taken against BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari for his comments such as “begum” and “mini-Pakistan” during campaigning in Nandigram a fortnight ago. EC did issue him a notice on April 8, but no action was initiated. EC issued him a warning on Tuesday, though there was no ban.
After action against Banerjee, EC’s role was under further scrutiny, especially in view of the controversial comments by BJP leaders Dilip Ghosh and Rahul Sinha after the Sitalkuchi deaths in Cooch Behar. While Ghosh said “naughty boys fell to bullets" and that there will be a repeat if someone overstepped boundaries, Sinha remarked that “eight people should have been killed instead of four” in Sitalkuchi.
“We have given a complaint to EC. Let us see if they have the courage to act against BJP leaders like they did against the CM,” a TMC leader said.
Hours later, the poll watchdog banned Sinha for 48 hours from campaigning, taking note of his speech suo motu (on its own). Separately, it sought Ghosh’s response explaining his stand by Wednesday morning, acting on a TMC complaint.
“If complaints are not there, EC should take suo motu action. This election is a test of EC’s credibility…despite so many forces being sent to the state, violence has happened, and statements are flying thick and fast,” a former senior EC functionary said, requesting anonymity.
EC’s actions appeared aimed at cooling tempers after the Sitalkuchi incident and ahead of the fifth phase of polling on April 17.
Sources in EC said while the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)’s A Raja was banned for 48 hours for his comment on chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami in the run-up to the Tamil Nadu assembly polls, BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma was banned for 48 hours in Assam; Sarma’s ban was reduced to 24 hours after he apologised, but no apology seems forthcoming from Banerjee.
GETTING AROUND THE BAN
Politicians, however, have their way. CM Adityanath went on a temple visit spree in 2019 during his three-day ban, managing to send a message to voters. Banerjee sat on a protest at the Gandhi Murti in Kolkata around Tuesday noon along with senior TMC leaders, an event that was televised and hence served her political purpose of effective messaging — akin to that during a campaign.
The TMC is expected to cash in on this ban politically, along with the Sitalkuchi incident that some believe could be a political lifeline for Banerjee’s party in the middle of the elections.
However, BJP leaders said these were “desperate tactics” and won’t help the TMC, just like the CM’s wheelchair campaign won’t reap any dividends for the ruling party. “Her unpopularity is so huge that nothing can reverse it. The Sitalkuchi incident has emboldened BJP voters in the state…free and fair voting will happen as the central forces are here to act,” a BJP functionary said.
Political observers, meanwhile, said EC did not face attacks of this nature since the 2019 elections when the Congress accused it of protecting the PM and Amit Shah. The election body’s guidelines on Covid-19 protocols, too, are being openly violated in Bengal at a time when the country is reeling under a second wave.