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Festivals, Forces Deployment, Covid-19 Rules: EC's Response to Eight-phase West Bengal Polls amid Flak

CEC Sunil Arora at the media briefing on Friday.

CEC Sunil Arora at the media briefing on Friday.

Responding to questions on the increased number of phases in West Bengal, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora said when the EC assesses the law and order situation, it is based on several factors.

With the Election Commission (EC) facing flak from some quarters for announcing eight-phase Assembly polls in West Bengal, officials on Friday said the polling had to be spread out due to festivals, the movement of security forces and an increased number of polling stations keeping in mind the Covid protocols. Responding to questions on the increased number of phases in West Bengal, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora said when the EC assesses the law-and-order situation, it is based on several factors.

“After all, the elections to West Bengal (Assembly) in 2016 were in seven phases. The Lok Sabha was in seven phases. So, seven to eight (phases) is not such a big deal because we also have to see the movement of forces, the current charges and counter-charges (by political parties). We have to kind of find a way out. That is why we are sending two expenditure observers to Tamil Nadu and two police observers to West Bengal," he explained.

In the 2016 West Bengal Assembly polls, the entire process, starting from the date of announcement till the date of counting, was completed in 77 days. This time, the period has been compressed to 66 days. In the 2016 polls, there were 77,000 polling stations with 11,000 going to polls per phase.

Due to distancing norms, the number of polling stations this time has gone up to 1.1 lakh. On an average, over 12,000 poling stations would go to polls in each of the eight phases. The total number of polling stations in West Bengal is 1,01,916, compared to 77,413 in 2016 — an increase of 31.65 per cent.

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Due to COVID norms, the number of voters per polling station has been restricted to 1,000 from 1,500, resulting in an increase in the number of polling stations. Two former chief election commissioners justified the move, saying the decision must have been based on an assessment of the law-and-order situation, while another CEC advocated a single-phase election given that rumours fly thick and fast in this age of social media.

Referring to the seven-phase voting in West Bengal in the 2016 Assembly polls, former CECs O P Rawat and N Gopalaswami noted that whenever the EC feels that there are enhanced security requirements based on ground realities, it takes such decisions. Though he noted that the EC’s decision must be based on its assessment of the law-and-order situation and availability of security forces, S Y Quraishi, who was the CEC from July 30, 2010 to June 10, 2012, said in the age of social media, wherein all kinds of rumours fly thick and fast during elections, there should be an attempt to shorten the duration and reduce the number of phases.

“Ideally, it should be a single-phase election," he added. The EC on Friday announced the poll schedule for five assemblies — Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry — with West Bengal to witness the maximum of eight phases of polling from March 27.