“This is a very safe Punjab.” Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) assistant sub-inspector Mahender Ram smiles as he takes a moment from his “naka” to tell you how he was stationed in the state for poll duty in 1992 when the Beant Singh government came to power. “A few people came out to vote. There was an atmosphere of fear and tight security,” recalls Ram. He is right, for the state recorded its lowest ever turnout of 24% in 1992.
A native of Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh, Ram, like his other CRPF comrades, is a veteran of 18 elections. That is why you believe him when he says Punjab polls are going to be a breeze. The last time he was deployed in the state was in 2014 for the Parliamentary elections.
“The elections here are very soft as compared to several other states like UP, Bihar and the Valley,” says Ram. “There are no bahubalis (strongmen) and people may respect the poll process unlike the UP jahan hera-pheri hone ka dar hota hai.”
Ram, who served in Kashmir from 2005 to 2015, says it’s the toughest state to manage during polls. “Everyone associated with the polling duty needs heavy security. We are always on high alert.”
A while ago, there was much excitement at the “naka” when they found Rs 30 lakh in a car’s boot. “Though the owner showed us papers and said it was from a bank, we were suspicious as he was travelling in a private car with no guards,” says Ram, who roped in the local cops.
Station house officer Balvinder Singh was called and the matter was sorted out when the bank intervened.
The “nakas” operate round the clock come rain or shine, and one shift means eight hours of standing. The CRPF also conducts flag marches and searches as an area domination exercise, besides manning polling booths on the day of the election. “It’s just another day at work for a CRPF jawan,” says Amit Kumar from Rajasthan at one of the CRPF’s makeshift camps, telling you how their operational arena includes counter-insurgency, Naxalism, VIP security and election duty.
Kumar is quick to offer tea but reluctant to speak out. “We don’t talk to the media,” he demurs, while adding: “Since one state or the other is going to polls every year, we end up seeing elections in almost every corner of India.”
SK Ojha from Bihar, who is deployed at another “naka”, says he’s lost count. “I think I have seen elections in almost every state of India,” he grins, telling you the “nakas” serve as a deterrent. “
We check vehicles for arms and ammunition, unaccounted currency, drugs and suspicious objects. We also make a random check of IDs to keep historysheeters at bay with the help of the local police.”
The CRPF men who come from all over India make for a very interesting medley as they work in tandem with the local police and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel. Constable Girish Solanki is from Gujarat, while DK Singh is from Bihar.
“We also have jawans from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh,” says Singh.
They don’t find it difficult to map Punjab except in some rural pockets where people speak chaste Punjabi. “But since most people know Hindi, there is no language barrier unlike Northeast, deep South or the Valley,” says Ram. “Also, the people here are very warm.”
Besides vouching for safe polls, the men at the “nakas” are confident about one more thing: A big turnout.
WEBCASTING IN 4,300 POLLING STATIONS
The Election Commission will use webcasting in a record 4,300 polling stations on February 4. “Sitting here, we will be able to monitor all activities inside these stations,” said additional chief electoral officer Sibin C.
“Since it is the first time there is a triangular contest on all seats, the EC is taking all precautions,” said Sibin.
The commission, he said, has received 5,300 poll-related complaints so far, of which it has disposed of 5,085.
Besides deploying the bootson-the-ground approach with 1,500 paramilitary companies to ensure safe polls, the EC is also using a host of hi-tech measures, which include webcasting, videography and digital cameras.