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Campaigns curbed after fierce Bengal showdown

ECI acted in the aftermath of the violence in which a statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, an icon of the Bengali renaissance, was damaged by vandals who stormed the 147-year-old institution established by Vidyasagar, also a social reformer.

lok sabha elections Updated: May 16, 2019 08:57 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, New Delhi/Kolkata
Bengal showdown,Amit Shah road show,Bengal campaigning
Police personnel douse burning vehicles caused by a mob during BJP President Amit Shah’s election roadshow for the last phase of Lok Sabha polls, in Kolkata, Tuesday, May 14, 2019(PTI photo)

In an unprecedented move, the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Wednesday cut short the poll campaign in West Bengal by 19 hours after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) accused each other of orchestrating the violence at a Kolkata roadshow by BJP president Amit Shah the previous evening in the endgame of a bitterly fought general election.

ECI acted in the aftermath of the violence in which a statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, an icon of the Bengali renaissance, was damaged by vandals who stormed the 147-year-old institution established by Vidyasagar, also a social reformer.

Campaigning for the nine Lok Sabha seats that will go to polls in West Bengal on May 19, the seventh and final phase of the 17th general elections, will end at 10 pm on Thursday, the poll watchdog said, instead of 5 pm on Friday at which it will end in 50 other seats that will vote on the same day.

“No election campaigning to be held in nine parliamentary constituencies of West Bengal, namely Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jaynagar, Mathurapur, Jadavpur, Diamond Harbour, South and North Kolkata, from 10pm tomorrow [Thursday] till the conclusion of polls,” deputy election commissioner Chandra Bhushan Kumar told reporters.

It is the first time that ECI has curtailed the campaign duration in a state, invoking Article 324 of the Constitution. Also on Wednesday night, ECI ordered the removal of the principal secretary (home), Atri Bhattacharya, and additional director general, Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Rajeev Kumar, from their postings in West Bengal for interfering in the process of conducting elections.

The announcement climaxed a day on which Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a harshly bitter attack against TMC chief and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banergee on her own turf as the TMC?and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused each other of orchestrating the violence in Kolkata on Tuesday.

Modi, 68, said Banerjee was destroying the “bhadralok,” or genteel and ethos that West Bengal had come to be represent, in an election rally at Taki on the Indo-Bangla border in North 24 Parganas district. He said Banerjee, 64, had been frightened by the rise of the BJP in West Bengal and accused her of being despotic.

“Mamata Banerjee is high on power and wants to strangle democracy. Mamata Didi had declared publicly two days ago that she will avenge every inch of space that she loses to the BJP. She fulfilled her agenda within 24 hours,” he said.

Modi said the entire nation had watched on television the previous evening how TMC thugs had attacked BJP president Amit Shah’s Kolkata roadshow and was anxiously awaiting the outcome of the poll results in West Bengal. Modi also specifically targeted Banerjee over the chit fund scandal in which tens of thousands of small investors lost their life savings and the Saradha group collapsed in 2013.

“Her government is out to destroy everything in the state,” he said, adding that the people of Bengal had made up their minds to end the TMC’s reign.

Addressing a press conference after the EC’s announcement, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said: “Some emergency situation has arisen due to some directions of the election commission. I don’t consider these as EC’s decision. These have been taken as per the direction of the BJP, Modi and Amit Shah.”

Union minister Arun Jaitley, however, defended the poll watchdog:?“A constitutional authority, the Election Commission of India, has effectively held Bengal to be a state in Anarchy. Repeatedly escalating violence, state supported Vandals, a partisan police and home department are the illustrations the ECI has given.”

The BJP and TMC held up what they said was proof substantiating their allegations of each other engineering Tuesday’s violence, turning up the political temperatures ahead of the seventh and final phase polling in which a total of 59 Lok Sabha seats spread across seven states and a Union Territory (Chandigarh) will be up for grabs. It be followed by counting of votes and declaration of results on May 23.

“We will not be intimidated by violence. Anger of Bengalis will translate into defeat for Mamata didi, who is stifling democracy in the state,” Shah said at a press conference in New Delhi. He said ECI had been reduced to a mute spectator in West Bengal and was partial to the TMC.

A section of the crowd stormed the gates of the 147-year-old Vidyasagar College, broke glass panes and furniture and set fire to bicycles and motorbikes.

“The college gates were closed, room was locked... who opened the lock? BJP workers did not enter the college,” said Shah, who held up photographs he claimed were proof that Trinamool Congress workers broke the statue of Vidyasagar.

“I was lucky to escape,” Shah said, demanding an independent probe into the incident by a neutral agency. “Had the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] not been there, it would have been difficult for me to escape.”

Leaders of the TMC struck back at the BJP chief with what they said was videotaped evidence to establish the BJP’s complicity in the violence and vandalism of the statue of Vidyasagar. The TMC tried to portray the incident as having hurt Bengali pride. Party leaders, including Banerjee, replaced their social media profile photos with photos of Vidyasagar to protest the alleged desecration of his statue

“What happened yesterday hurt the very ethos of Bengal,” TMC leader Derek O’Brien said. “Today is the saddest press conference we have held. Saddest for all of us to see the streets of Kolkata. There is anger and there is shock.”

He released a video which showed people jumping over the fence to enter the college in his rebuttal to Shah. O’Brien said the men who broke the statute were BJP thugs who had been brought to Kolkata from as far away as Uttar Pradesh for the roadshow.

“Mr Amit Shah is a liar. The video is the proof,” said O’Brien at a media briefing before heading to the election commission with a litany of complaints against the BJP.

Banerjee took out a protest rally on Wednesday. Launching a scathing attack on Shah on Tuesday, Banerjee said: “What does Amit Shah think of himself? Is he above everything? Is he god that no one can protest against him.”

West Bengal elects 42 members of the Lok Sabha, behind only Uttar Pradesh (80) and Maharashtra (48), and Shah has set a target of winning at least 22 seats and emerging as the principal opposition to the Trinamool, which ended the Left’s 34-year rule over the state in 2011.

In New Delhi, the BJP staged a silent protest at Janta Mantar in New Delhi. Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman, Jitendra Singh, Vijay Goel and Harsh Vardhan wore black bands and put fingers on their lips sitting on the stage. Some BJP workers were also carrying placards which read: “Save Bengal, save democracy”.

“Yesterday, our national president’s [Amit Shah] rally was hit by violence, but if it wasn’t for the CRPF, our party president would not have come back safe,” Sitharaman told reporters. “I think the forthcoming defeat has left the CM of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, completely rattled and she has been provoking her cadre to indulge in violence.”

The Congress on Wednesday condemned the violence in Kolkata which it blamed on the BJP. “A new politics where ‘mobocracy’ is being actively encouraged and abetted by the ruling party — the BJP — in the country has gained ground in the past five years. Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah-led BJP are squarely responsible for systematically damaging the cultural identity of each state in India,” spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters.

The Congress’s incharge for Bengal Gaurav Gogoi said: “This is nothing but a covert attempt by PM Modi to attack the federal structure of India. It is a preview of the threat to Indian democracy if PM Modi returns to power in 2019.”

(With agency inputs)

First Published: May 16, 2019 00:20 IST