Amid raging pandemic, counting of votes to decide leadership in Puducherry and 4 states

By, New Delhi
May 02, 2021 06:47 AM IST

Besides Bengal, opinion poll projections for other states have largely been along expected lines in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

Votes for 822 assembly seats spread across four states and a Union territory will be counted on Sunday after the largest electoral exercise amid the pandemic, with elaborate Covid-19 arrangements being put in place by the poll watchdog as the country battles the world’s worst outbreak of the infectious disease.

The counting of votes will begin at 8am on Sunday.(PTI Photo) (PTI)
The counting of votes will begin at 8am on Sunday.(PTI Photo) (PTI)

The Election Commission of India, which has been criticised for allowing political parties to hold rallies with thousands in attendance with little to no regard for Covid-appropriate behaviour, said on Saturday it has taken several measures to limit the threat of the outbreak at its counting centres across the country.

The counting of votes will begin at 8am on Sunday.

Polling in West Bengal, held over eight phases from March 27 to April 29, saw an intense and often vitriolic campaign by both the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Mamata Banerjee-led TMC aims to retain its stronghold, with the opposition BJP emerging as the incumbent party’s main challenger in the state.

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A majority of exit polls released after the eighth and final round of voting on Thursday suggested that the ruling TMC may have an edge over the BJP, although the results may be too close to call. The Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front combine is projected to be a distant third, the exit polls indicated.

If the BJP manages to pull off a win, it will be a remarkable achievement for a party that won only three of the 294 assembly seats in 2016, although it won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2019.

If the TMC manages to hold on to power for a third term -- despite the likelihood of a slim margin -- it will be a feat for chief minister Banerjee, whose party was weakened by defections to the BJP and is facing significant anti-incumbency.

A party needs to cross the halfway mark – 147 -- in the 294-member assembly to emerge victorious. However, votes will be counted for 292 seats as polling in two seats of Murshidabad district was revoked after the deaths of two candidates of the TMC due to Covid-19.

Both contenders exuded confidence on Saturday.

“We will meet our expectations,” BJP state president Dilip Ghosh said. The BJP has previously said it will win over 200 seats in the state. Saugata Roy of the TMC too said that victory was theirs. “The way BJP workers are demoralised, it shows they have lost the battle even before counting of votes,” he said.

The Sanjukta Morcha or the alliance between the Congress, Left parties and cleric Abbasuddin Siddiqui’s newly launched Indian Secular Front (ISF) is also in the fray, although exit polls predicted a sub-par performance.

Besides Bengal, opinion poll projections for other states have largely been along expected lines in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

Exit polls predicted a sweep for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, signalling the emergence of 62-year-old MK Stalin as a key regional leader in the country, while the Edapaddi Palaniswami-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government falls behind.

In the state, which has voted for the first time after the deaths of stalwarts J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, counting for 234 assembly seats will decide the fate of 4,218 candidates on Sunday.

Other parties that are looking to make inroads include actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam, which made its electoral debut this time around, and the AIADMK rebel faction: Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK).

According to exit poll estimates, the incumbents in both Kerala – which has for decades changed its government every five years-- and Assam are set to return to power.

The Left Democratic Front (LDF) headed by Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan is likely to be victorious in the 140-assembly, the polls have indicated, although the Congress-led United Democratic Front expressed confidence that the state will not buck the 40-year-old trend this time.

“We are sure about our continuation. Our track record is our strength. People are with us,” Vijayan said. The Congress’s Ramesh Chennithala, however, dismissed the polling surveys and said people are waiting to get rid of the “corrupt and inefficient government”.

If exit polls are to be believed, the BJP-led alliance has a clear lead over the opposition grand alliance headed by the Congress in the 126-member Assam assembly. Nonetheless, the rivals expressed confidence of victory. While the BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma said the party will win close to 100 seats, the Congress’s Gaurav Gogoi asserted that “the exit polls are not telling reality”.

Votes would also be counted for the 30 seats in Puducherry, where the National Democratic Alliance led by NR Congress is predicted to win ahead of ruling the Congress-led alliance.

Polling in Bengal was held in eight phases and Assam voted in three phases between March 27 and April 29. Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry voted in a single phase on April 6.

The EC said it has more than doubled the number of counting centres in the five states/UT from 1,002 to 2,364 to ensure social distancing. Nearly 95,000 officials will participate in the counting process and over 1,100 observers will oversee the procedure.

The poll watchdog also announced earlier that in view of the rising Covid-19 cases across the country, all electronic voting machines (EVMs) and voter-verifiable paper audit trails (VVPATs) at the counting centres will be sanitised before the process begins on Sunday. “Masks, face shields and sanitisers will be kept outside the centres for those involved in the exercise. At least 15 rounds of sanitisation will be done at each centre during the process. We have made a special arrangement for this,” an EC official told PTI.

Separately, candidates and their agents will have to produce a negative Covid test report or a double dose of vaccination certificate to get an entry into a counting centre. Earlier this week, the EC also banned victory processions and rallies on or after counting day.

The measures were announced as West Bengal saw an exponential rise in the number of Covid-19 cases, blamed by several experts on the months-long political campaign that was allowed to go on with few restrictions. On Saturday, the state recorded 17,512 new cases and 103 deaths -- a single-day record on both fronts.

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