The Chief Election Commissioner of West Bengal on Thursday directed officials and all the political parties to ensure strict compliance of the COVID-19 guidelines ahead of the fifth phase of polling, which is to be held on Saturday. The officials were asked to ensure that voters maintain at least 2-feet distance at the polling booths in view of worsening COVID-19 situation.
Campaigning for the fifth phase of the West Bengal Assembly elections, in which 45 seats will go to polls on April 17, ended on Wednesday. The Election Commission has increased the silence period from 48 to 72 hours in view of the Cooch Behar killings in the fourth phase.
A total of 1.13 crore voters are eligible to cast their votes on Saturday to decide the fate of 342 candidates, including Siliguri Mayor and Left Front leader Ashok Bhattacharya, state minister Bratya Basu and BJP’s Samik Bhattacharya. Polling will be held from 7 am to 6.30 pm at 15,789 polling stations in 16 assembly seats in North 24 Parganas, eight each in Purba Bardhaman and Nadia, seven in Jalpaiguri, five Darjeeling and one in Kalimpong district.
Amid rising cases of violence, the poll body also emphasised on the need to strictly implement Section 144 in the next phase of polling. In case of any untoward incident outside section 144 on Saturday, the area will be cordoned off immediately, the officials decided. The Election Commission also instructed the state police to lathicharge the people if a situation goes out of control or mobs appear around polling booths.
Sources indicated that the poll body was looking at a possibility of merging the last three phases — 6,7 and 8. However, no such decision has been taken yet and it was just a possibility, they clarified.
The poll body has increased the number of election observers from 60 to 66 for the next phase of polling and has given them the rights to take instant decision if situation goes out of control. The observers will be on duty from 5 am onwards. Stern warning has been issued to ADG L&O by top EC officials to ensure peaceful voting. In case of Sitalkuchi-like situation, the CAPF can open fire but in keeping with the standard operation procedure (SOP), which is below the knee.
In view of the Cooch Behar killings, in which four people were killed in CISF firing and one man was shot dead by unidentified persons outside a booth in Sitalkuchi, the EC has decided to deploy at least 853 companies of central forces to ensure free and fair voting, an election official said. The BJP’s star campaigners including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, party chief J P Nadda and actor Mithun Chakraborty had addressed several rallies in the region, attacking the TMC over corruption charges.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew and Diamond Harbour MP Abhishek Banerjee, on the other hand, attacked the Centre over fuel price rise. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also addressed rallies in the state on Saturday.
The BJP led in more assembly seats than the TMC in the region in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The TMC had won 32 seats in the 2016 assembly polls, the Left-Congress alliance 10, while the BJP had drawn a blank.
Votes polled in the eight-phase assembly elections to 294 seats, which began on March 27, will be counted on May 2.