Peaceful start: On first phase of Assembly elections

Despite a fierce contest, the first phase of the polls was spared of major violence

The first phase of polling in West Bengal and Assam on Saturday witnessed an impressive turnout. In some constituencies, the turnout was well above 80%. In Assam, 47 Assembly constituencies, and in West Bengal, 30 constituencies went to the polls, with turnouts of 79.97% and 84.63%, respectively. In 2016, the ruling Trinamool Congress won 26 of the 30 seats in West Bengal in the tribal regions of Jangalmahal. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP made significant inroads into the region. In Assam, the ruling BJP won 35 of the 47 seats in 2016, where tribal communities employed in tea estates shifted from the Congress to the BJP in large numbers. The BJP is pulling out all the stops to retain power in Assam and wrest it in West Bengal for the first time. The fierce nature of the contest in West Bengal is far too evident, but still there was no major violence in the first phase. The BJP has complained of violence by the TMC, while the latter has complained of partisanship by the Election Commission. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has claimed that the BJP is set to win 26 of the 30 seats in West Bengal and 37 of the 47 seats in Assam. The TMC has ridiculed the claim. In Assam, the Congress has claimed to have made major gains in the first phase. The claims and counterclaims can only be read as signalling for supporters and rivals alike by each side, but there are certain trends that are notable as the campaign for the second phase on April 1 peaks. Elections are being held in eight phases in West Bengal and three phases in Assam.

The BJP in Assam is not as defensive as the TMC is in West Bengal. The shenanigans of its leaders have resulted in an unmistakable anti-incumbency against the TMC, which has been in power for 10 years now. The party is trying to recover lost ground with new promises and by riding on the personal popularity that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee continues to command. Though it has no leader of any consequence in the State, and its campaign is being spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Shah, the BJP hopes to harvest anti-TMC sentiments and win power. The BJP has not announced a chief ministerial candidate in West Bengal; and in Assam, the paradox is that its machinery is dependent more on the powerful minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, than Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Mr. Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in the midst of the election has triggered communal tensions there. The Hindu minority in Bangladesh is coming under attack by Islamists, and the ripple effects of this will be felt in the next phase in both States. The danger of communal polarisation is ever-present, but it might be too much to expect the BJP and the TMC to keep the campaign free of hateful rhetoric in the phases ahead. The Election Commission might need to step in.

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