On Sunday, as the Election Commission announced the dates for the Lok Sabha polls, which will be held over seven phases from April 11 to May 19 with counting on May 23, there were some notable contrasts from the previous election in 2014.
Psephologist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav listed out the deviations: Odisha will vote in four phases instead of two – which stands in sharp contrast to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which both vote in one phase. Maharashtra has four phases instead of the three it had in 2014. Himalayan neighbours Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh went to the polls in the same phase in 2014 but are now separated by more than a month.
However, the change that has generated the sharpest reaction relates to West Bengal. The state will vote in seven phases as opposed to five in 2014. In effect, the state, which has 42 seats, will be voting in each phase of the Lok Sabha election.
Long and short
The Trinamool Congress, the ruling party in West Bengal, was miffed with this protracted schedule, blaming the Bharatiya Janata Party-controlled Centre for it. West Bengal minister Firhad Hakim argued that the Union government had submitted a false report on the state’s law and order situation, which had led to the Election Commission declaring a seven-phase election.
Both the Trinamool Congress and the Congress have asked for the state’s election schedule to be revised given that it would clash with Ramzan, the Islamic month of fasting, which starts on May 5.
While the Election Commission itself is yet to release any explanation for the state’s protracted voting schedule, West Bengal’s past political history would certainly be a factor. Since the 1960s, elections in the state have seen political parties resorting to violence. The 1972 Assembly elections had the Congress use its position at the Centre to carry out widespread rigging and voter fraud to win. This political culture, in turn, was taken up by the subsequent Left and Trinamool Congress governments.
Holding elections in several phases allows the Election Commission to concentrate security personnel in each region going to the polls instead of spreading them out thin.
In the 2018 West Bengal panchayat election, more than a third of gram panchayat seats went uncontested, with the ruling Trinamool Congress winning walkovers. Opposition candidates complained that the widespread violence and intimidation prevented them from even filing their nominations.
Central forces tug of war
The key difference between local body elections and Lok Sabha polls is that while the local body elections are conducted by the state election commission, the general elections are carried out by the Election Commission of India. The national commission’s use of Central government paramilitary forces is being seen as a crucial determiner of how the election will play out.
In a meeting with the Election Commission in February, the West Bengal BJP demanded heavy deployment of Central paramilitary forces, which would function independent of the government in Kolkata. “They should be deployed in each and every booth of the state and the central forces should not be under the control of the district police,” demanded West Bengal BJP leader, Mukul Roy.
On Monday, responding to the objections raised by political parties about the polls overlapping with Ramzan, Roy pointed out that the 2013 West Bengal panchayat polls had also coincided with Ramzan. “So that cannot be an issue,” he said.
In 2018, the Trinamool Congress had also used Ramzan to press for a single-phase panchayat elections – and, after much legal wrangling, this decision was agreed to by the Supreme Court. Ramzan has been a factor in other states too. In May, there were apprehensions that the turnout of Muslims in the Kairana Lok Sabha bye-poll in Uttar Pradesh will be low because it took place during Ramzan.
However, Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi rubbished such complaints, calling the controversy “totally uncalled for and unnecessary” since Muslims anyway follow their regular routine while fasting.
Election Commission questioned
The protracted election schedule in West Bengal is just one in a list of recent Election Commission decisions that that Opposition has objected to while claiming such decisions were being made to help the BJP.
On March 4, the Congress accused the Election Commission of delaying the announcement of Lok Sabha election dates in order to give the government “a long rope to campaign till the last moment using public money”.
Once the dates for an election are announced, the model code of conduct become operational, which bars governments from making new policy announcements.
A similar accusation was made in 2017, as the Election Commission was accused of delaying the announcement of Assembly elections in Gujarat in order to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi time to launch new schemes.