ECI must take measures to prevent violence, and keep the election process fair
Five people were killed on Saturday during the fourth phase of polls in West Bengal, where the first three phases were largely eventless. While one person was allegedly killed by political rivals, four others were killed when security personnel fired more than 15 rounds in a span of two hours at Cooch Behar’s Sitalkuchi Assembly constituency. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has concluded that the police action was necessary, and taken in “self defence,” but the political storm kicked up by the episode continues to rage. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has alleged a conspiracy by the BJP to scare her supporters and called for the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah. Mr. Shah, in turn, has said the Chief Minister’s call to gherao personnel of the Central security forces led to the flare-up. The Trinamool Congress has alleged that Central forces are restricting it and helping the BJP in the campaign. It is unclear whether the force used to control the mob was proportionate and the deaths were avoidable. Elsewhere in the State, a group of people tried to stop the vehicle of a BJP MP. All these are bad omens, against the backdrop of an intensely competitive political battle between Ms. Banerjee’s Trinamool and the BJP.
The ECI’s role in Bengal has been called into question by Opposition parties for various reasons. Its explanation for spreading the polls over eight phases over a month has not mitigated the concern that it gave undue advantage to the BJP. Its practice of redeploying civil and police officials is a time-tested measure to keep the election process fair. However, if redeployment leads to administrative chaos and partisanship, it is a matter of concern. While the ECI has been proactive in acting on charges of religious appeals made by Trinamool leaders including Ms. Banerjee, such alacrity has been missing in its dealings with the BJP. BJP leaders have made brazen communal appeals and gone scot-free. ECI advertisements that invoked the sacrifices of security personnel amounted to the Commission overstepping its strictly apolitical role. The personal role of the Prime Minister in a State election has made the task of the ECI much more difficult, and it has not risen up to the challenge. Ms. Banerjee may have gone over the top in trolling the ECI to “rename MCC as Modi Code of Conduct”. But it is not the first time that a Chief Minister has questioned the ECI’s impartiality. Narendra Modi himself had questioned the fairness of the ECI when he was Gujarat Chief Minister. Its reputation built over decades kept public trust intact, through all this. That trust is now being eroded, through acts of commission and omission. There are four more phases of polling in Bengal and the ECI must take measures to prevent violence, and keep the process fair and enabling for voters.