Over 86 lakh voters in West Bengal will decide the political fate of 284 candidates on Monday, when 34 assembly constituencies, including Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s home turf Bhabanipur, go to polls in the seventh phase, amid a raging second wave of COVID-19. Security measures have been heightened in view of the violence in the previous phases, particularly the death of five people in Cooch Behar in the fourth round of polling on April 10, an Election Commission official said.
The poll panel has decided to deploy at least 796 companies of central forces in the seventh phase to ensure free and fair voting, he said. It will also put in place measures to ensure strict adherence to COVID-19 protocols during the voting process, the official said.
West Bengal on Saturday registered its highest-single- day spike of 14,281 coronavirus cases, which took the tally to 7,28,061, and at least 59 more people succumbed to the infection, pushing the toll to 10,884. Voting will be held at 12,068 polling stations spread over nine assembly constituencies each in Murshidabad and Paschim Bardhaman districts, six each in Dakshin Dinajpur and Malda and four in Kolkata, the official said.
All eyes will be on the Bhabanipur constituency, of which the TMC supremo is the sitting MLA and a resident. Banerjee, however, has opted for Nandigram to contest the elections this time and reposed faith in veteran politician and state power minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay to make a hat-trick of wins for the party from Bhabanipur.
Chattopadhyay is pitted against a seasoned actor but a greenhorn in electoral politics, Rudranil Ghosh, who left the ruling party a few months ago to join the BJP. State minister Firhad Hakim is also seeking re-election for a third consecutive term from the Kolkata Port constituency, while the BJP fielded Lt General (Retired) Subrata Saha from the Rashbehari seat in the metropolis.
Campaigning for the seventh phase has been a low-key affair, following curbs imposed by the EC in the wake of the second wave of COVID-19 cases in the state. Following the surge in coronavirus cases across the country, the EC has banned roadshows and vehicle rallies in the state and noted that the COVID safety norms were being flouted in West Bengal during campaigning.
It also disallowed any public meeting with more than 500 people. The Election Commission has curtailed daily campaign hours and extended the “silence period” from 48 hours to 72 in each of the remaining three phases of the assembly polls in view of the Cooch Behar violence and the rising COVID-19 cases.
The TMC chief and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, who is the party MP, cancelled all their scheduled rallies and held them on the virtual platform as did Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 23. Polling for two assembly seats in Samserganj and Jangipur in Murshidabad district has been declared void following the deaths of two candidates there.
The Election Commission has fixed May 16 for the polling in these two seats.