Campaigning for the fifth phase of the West Bengal assembly elections, in which 45 seats will go to polls on April 17, ended on Wednesday. The campaigning ended at 6.30 pm. The Election Commission has increased the silence period from 48 to 72 hours in view of the Cooch Behar killings in the fourth phase.
A total of 1.13 crore voters are eligible to cast their votes to decide the fate of 342 candidates, including Siliguri Mayor and Left Front leader Ashok Bhattacharya, state minister Bratya Basu and BJP’s Samik Bhattacharya. Polling will be held from 7 am to 6.30 pm at 15,789 polling stations in 16 assembly seats in North 24 Parganas, eight each in Purba Bardhaman and Nadia, seven in Jalpaiguri, five Darjeeling and one in Kalimpong district.
In view of the Cooch Behar killings, in which four people were killed in CISF firing and one man was shot dead by unidentified persons outside a booth in Sitalkuchi, the EC has decided to deploy at least 853 companies of central forces to ensure free and fair voting, an election official said. The BJP’s star campaigners, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, party chief JP Nadda and actor Mithun Chakraborty, had addressed several rallies in the region, attacking the TMC over corruption charges.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew and Diamond Harbour MP Abhishek Banerjee, on the other hand, attacked the Centre over fuel price rise. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also addressed rallies in the state.
The BJP led in more Assembly seats than the TMC in the region in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The TMC had won 32 seats in the 2016 assembly polls, the Left-Congress alliance 10, while the BJP had drawn a blank.
Votes polled in the eight-phase assembly elections to 294 seats being held from March 27 to April 29 will be counted on May 2.
In another development, state Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Aariz Aftab called an all-party meeting on April 16 following the Calcutta High Court direction to the CEO and all district magistrates in the state to ensure strict implementation of COVID-19 protocol during campaigning for the remaining four phases of the state election, an EC official said. All political parties in the state have been asked to send only one representative each for the meeting which will discuss matters related to the campaigning for the last four phases of the poll, he said.
There will be discussions on the norms of social distancing and relevant COVID-19 protocol, the official added. State Additional Director General of police (Law and Order) Jag Mohan and state health secretary N S Nigam will also be present in the meeting, he said.
The Calcutta High Court had on Tuesday directed that all health-related guidelines should be maintained in the strictest possible manner with regard to campaigning by political parties for the West Bengal assembly polls in view of the resurgence in COVID-19 cases. Hearing two PILs in this regard, a division bench, presided by Chief Justice TBN Radhakrishnan, had ordered that all district magistrates will ensure that the guidelines laid down by the EC and CEO are strictly implemented in letter and spirit and if necessary, with police aid.
Meanwhile, the CPI-M on Wednesday decided that no big rallies will be organised by it for campaigning for the remaining phases of the state election and emphasis would be laid on door-to-door campaigning and small group meetings.
CPI-M Politburo member Md Salim told reporters, “We had seen the high turnouts in our meetings in all the phases of polling so far. With the sharp rise in Covid-19 we have decided not to hold any big rally to prevent any contamination. We will undertake door to doors and small group meetings with all Covid-19 measures in place”. Campaigning for the fifth phase of polls ended on Wednesday, 72 hours before the voting on April 17.
Salim said both the Centre and state government should act responsibly in the present situation for public safety and not politicise the COVID-19 issue. The senior CPI-M leader said the party will work to build more awareness among the general people about following basic preventive measures to stop the contagion.
“We will also be on the side of the affected people like last year and help them with relief measures,” he added..