Ten arrests were made after sporadic incidents of violence were reported from various places that went to polls on Saturday during the first phase of West Bengal assembly elections. However, the overall poll situation was largely peaceful with 79.79 per cent turnout recorded till 8 pm. In Assam, voters were happy with Covid-appropriate measures at the booths, and a turnout of 76.89 per cent was recorded in the state till 8 pm.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah had campaigned energetically for their Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal, encouraging defections from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, whose firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee has been chief minister since 2011.
India’s fourth most populous state, with 90 million people, was for decades a bastion of communism, and registered a voter turnout of nearly 80% in Saturday’s first phase of voting.
Politicians on the campaign trail often showed scant regard for social distancing, but as voters queued patiently at polling centres, security personnel and election workers handed out masks, hand sanitisers and gloves.
Voting was held in 30 seats in Bengal - several of them part of the once-Naxal-hit Jangalmahal region — amid tight security and strict adherence to COVID-19 guidelines, the Election Commission (EC) official said.
In some booths, voters were provided with masks, sanitisers and polythene gloves. Of the 30 seats that went to polls — nine are in Purulia, four each in Bankura and Jhargram, six in Paschim Medinipur, and seven in high-stakes Purba Medinipur district.
“Till 8 pm, 79.79 percent polling has been recorded in the state. elections were held peacefully," the EC official said. Purba Medinipur recorded the highest turnout at 82.51 per cent, followed by Jhargram at 80.56, Paschim Medinipur at 80.12 per cent, Bankura at 79.90 per cent and Purulia at 77.07 per cent.
Violence and scuffle, however, marred the polling process in some areas. In the Kanthi Dakshin seat of Purba Medinipur district, voters staged protests outside a polling booth over the alleged malfunctioning of an electronic voting machine.
The agitators blocked a road outside a polling station at Majna, claiming that the VVPAT slip showed results in favour of a particular party, no matter which outfit they voted for. A contingent of central forces was sent to the area to control the situation, an EC official said, adding that the VVPAT machine was eventually replaced.
Banerjee, during a rally in West Midnapore, claimed that the BJP has manipulated EVMs and used central forces to intimidate the voters. “Today, in some polling booths of Kanthi, the VVPAT showed that votes were getting polled in favour of the BJP, even as a person pressed the button next to the symbol of some other party. In some areas, central forces were seen threatening voters. The EC must take action," she said.
BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari’s younger brother Soumendu claimed he was attacked in Kanthi by TMC supporters. He also alleged that his car was vandalised, and his driver sustained injuries in the attack.
“I was passing through Kanthi, when the TMC supported hurled bricks at my car and smashed its window panes. It seems they have lost their minds, sensing defeat," Soumendu said. At Mohonpur in Dantan assembly constituency, four persons were injured in clashes between workers of the TMC and the BJP, after alleged attempts to capture booths were made by some of them.
At Keshiari in Paschim Medinipur, security forces baton-charged locals who staged demonstrations, claiming that votes were being cast only in favour of one party. Later in the day, the protesters blocked an adjoining road stating that security forces attacked women during house-to-house raids.
A man identified as Mangal Soren was found dead near his home in Begumpur area of Keshiari earlier in the day, the police said. BJP leaders claimed that Soren, a party supporter, was killed by TMC “goons", a charge rubbished by the ruling party. A case has been registered under section 302 of IPC (murder) based on a complaint lodged by the victim’s mother, and an autopsy report is awaited.
In its report to the EC, the district administration said the death had no connection with the polling process. Dipak Bauri, a BJP leader in Purulia, claimed that the constituency’s TMC candidate Sujoy Bandyopadhyay threatened to shoot him during an altercation.
In Paschim Medinipur’s Salboni seat, CPI(M) candidate Susanta Ghosh was heckled, and stones were hurled at his car, allegedly by TMC supporters. Police personnel posted in the area escorted him to safety. According to reports, a few journalists who were covering the incident were also manhandled.
An EC official said three persons were arrested in connection with the attack. The TMC, however, denied any involvement.
Long queues were seen outside most booths during the morning hours, with people stepping out early in the day to avoid the sweltering heat, and violence or protests, if any. In several areas, including Egra, voters complained of intimidation by central forces.
A few EVMs, found non-functional during the voting process, were either replaced or restored, the EC official said, adding that the polling wasn’t affected due to it. The TMC has raised concerns over the “fluctuating turnout figures" on the EC’s mobile app.
The EC, however, allayed the concerns and said it takes time to collate the final figures. The BJP, meanwhile, moved EC accusing the TMC of letting loose a reign of fear in several areas.
The TMC also demanded to reinstate the old regulation of deploying local persons as polling agents inside stations. CEO Bengal has passed the buck on to the CEC to take a final call on the matter.
More than 73 lakh voters were eligible to exercise their franchise and decide the fate of 191 candidates during the first phase of elections — the process for which was scheduled to end at 6 pm. Around 730 companies of central forces guarded 10,288 polling booths housed in 7,061 premises, officials said.
In 2016, the TMC had won 27 of the 30 seats, where polling was held on Saturday. The Left-Congress alliance had won the remaining three.
In neighbouring Assam, where a BJP-led alliance is seeking a second term, turnout was over 76% after a day that had begun with voters queuing before the polls opened at 7 a.m.
Voters in Assam stepped out of their homes with caution to exercise their franchise and they seemed satisfied with the facilities to check the spread of the virus in polling stations in the first of the three-phased election in 47 of the 126 assembly constituencies. Besides, voters were happy with arrangements to take care of children while their mothers voted, and ferry people with disabilities to polling stations.
For 65-year old Amiya Gogoi of the Duliajan assembly constituency, not casting her vote due to the pandemic was not an option as she has sincerely voted in every election since she came to her marital home as a bride 45-years ago. “My husband and I have never stayed away from any election but this time we had doubts with Corona cases again increasing and both of us are co-morbid," she said.
Her two sons, who are also voters, went early to the polling station and returned reassured that strict COVID protocols are in place and their parents can exercise their rights without worry, she said. Bank official Dilip Phukan of the Dibrugarh constituency was also initially hesitant to go to the polling station.
He ventured out to exercise his franchise after his friends in the district administration assured him that COVID-19 safety measures such as wearing masks, marked places for voters to stand in a queue, availability of sanitiser and thermal scanner and disposable gloves for touching the EVMs are in place. Anima Tanti, a worker of Gopal Tea Estate in Golaghat district, with a three-month-old child was not willing to go to vote but on seeing her neighbours dressed in their holiday best, she too was tempted and wore a colourful saree to join them, taking her little daughter along.
“When I reached the polling station, I was surprised as a ‘baideu’ (elder sister), on seeing me with a baby, took me aside to a beautifully decorated room with toys and other child care facilities. Another baideu there took care of my baby while I finished voting," a happy Tanti said. There are 479 polling stations where only women polling personnel have been deployed with 128 of them turned into model polling stations and decorated aesthetically with Assamese handicrafts, including the ‘japi’ (traditional head- gears), bamboo crafted gates, designs made with ‘gamosas’ (traditional towels) and ‘rangolis’ at the entrance.
First-time voter Akash Saikia came early in the morning with his 82-year-old grandmother in a Tinsukia school to cast their votes with fewer people around and was surprised to find that they were the first in the queue. “We were first given the sanitiser, then tested with a thermal scanner and then ‘Aita’ (grandmother) was welcomed with a ‘gamosa’. She was also presented with a neem sapling which we planted in the school ground," a visibly excited Saikia, who is 22-year-old, said.
In traditional Assamese culture, respected guests are welcomed with the offering of ‘gamosas’. Mrinmoyee Devi was not very keen to take her 35-year old son, a Person with Disability, to the polling station though he was eager to vote.
A relative assured her that she has no reason to worry as the administration will make the necessary arrangements. An e-rickshaw was sent to take him to the polling station and bring him back home. “I am so glad that he could vote and am thankful to the administration for making it possible. They also honoured him with a ‘gamosa’ and he is so happy," she said.
Prashanta Boruah, an elderly voter of Tezpur, said that the Election Commission and the administration have taken measures to ensure implementation of the mandated COVID protocols and people are sincerely abiding by them while exercising their franchise. “It is, therefore, disheartening to note that politicians and their supporters throw all caution to the wind during campaigning. They are seen without masks and observing no social distancing," he said.
The administration should be strict in ensuring that all precautions are taken during political rallies, meetings and roadshows, Boruah added. Wearing of masks by voters has been made mandatory or those coming without one will be provided with a mask at the polling station, Assam’s Chief Electoral Officer Nitin Khade said.
Sanitiser, thermal scanner, soap and handwashing facilities are a part of the Assured Minimum Facilities in each polling stations across Assam, Chief Electoral Officer Nitin Khade said. A distance of six feet between two voters while waiting to cast their votes must be maintained while each voter will be provided with disposable gloves for touching the EVMs, he said.