Election Commission says no proposal to merge last two Bengal election phases
The Election Commission of India (ECI) on Wednesday said that it had received no proposal to merge the last two phases of the ongoing assembly election in West Bengal.
ECI officials also refuted a report, published in HT on Wednesday, that observers in the state had told the poll watchdog that clubbing the two phases was possible if more security forces were granted.
The HT report, citing senior election officials, had said that poll observers -- Ajay Nayak and Vivek Dube -- wrote a letter to ECI late last week, saying that the seventh and eighth phases of the Bengal elections, scheduled on April 26 and 29, could be merged if extra security forces are provided.
The report cited a senior election official who said he had reviewed the letter. HT did not independently see the letter.
According to the official, the observers told ECI that the last two phases could be merged due to the surge in infections but such a step would need 500 additional companies of security forces. Each company has about 80 personnel.
"ECI has neither received a letter from observers, nor is ECI mulling over any proposal to club the phases," said an ECI spokesperson.
The sixth round of the eight-phase polls, comprising 43 seats, is on April 22.
Another EC official said that merging phases was problematic at this stage on several counts. “Extra forces is just one part of it -- they are posted across the country, and sending them to Bengal needs advance notice and that would be ideally three to four months earlier,” said the second official on condition of anonymity. He also added that any changes would violate the candidates’ right under the Representation of the People’s Act 1951.
The debate over the final phases of the high-stakes election comes amid a spike in infections in Bengal. The state logged 9819 cases -- its highest -- and 46 cases on Tuesday, according to the HT dashboard.
The last two phases of elections comprise 71 seats in central and south Bengal, and parts of the state capital Kolkata.
To control rising cases, the commission has extended the silent period for campaigning from 48 to 72 hours, banned public meetings and road shows between 7 pm and 10 am and threatened penal provisions against any political party or candidate found violating Covid-19 protocol at public events.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, Trinamool Congress and Congress-Left alliance have all scaled back their campaign and public events. The BJP will limit its rallies to 500 people and focus on digital outreach and chief minister Mamata Banerjee will not campaign in Kolkata, save one symbolic event on April 26. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has cancelled all his rallies in the state and the Left has scrapped all big rallies.
Banerjee has repeatedly asked for merging the last few phases of polls, citing rising Covid-19 cases. TMC MP Derek O'Brien said the party reiterated their demand in a letter to ECI on Tuesday.
On Monday, Union home minister Amit Shah said that each candidate had to be given a certain number of days to campaign and it was the constitutional duty of the commission to ensure that an appropriate amount of time is provided. “Constitutionally, the EC has no other option but to conduct elections. Mamata ji makes comments without reading the Constitution,” Shah had said.
(The story has been changed from its previous version after a more elaborate response from the Election Commission of India)