In Bengal, Pervasive Questions About Credibility Of The Election Process

17/04/2016 11:00 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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ASANSOL, INDIA - APRIL 11: People stand in a queue to cast their vote for West Bengal Assembly elections at Kendulia School, Jamuria on April 11, 2016 in Asansol, India. Amid sporadic incidents of clash and scorching heat, 79.56 per cent votes were cast on Monday in part two of the first phase of polling in 31 Assembly constituencies spread over three districts in West Bengal. (Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Nurul Haq is dividing stacks of hay with his sickle as we approach him. He is the tenth person we meet in the West Bengal assembly constituency in Burdwan district, but only the first who’s willing to speak up about his political views. The nine before him all said they were not into politics, they didn’t know, they hadn’t made up their minds, they couldn’t say which party they liked more.

Nurul Haq didn’t care, except requesting that he not be named (it has been changed). He voted for the CPM twice in his life, when they first came to power. But then they became a party of violence, intimidation and little governance. He has mostly been a Congress voter, but last election in 2011, he needed to vote for Trinamool to rid Bengal of the Left Front after 34 years in power. Now he’s unhappy with the Trinamool, and his old party, the Congress, is in alliance with the Left Front. It’s time for him to once again vote for the CPM. If only he’s allowed to.

“If there’s intimidation at the polling booth, if I hear it’s not safe to go there, I won’t step out of my house,” he says. His wife chips in, “And then the Trinamool people will cast votes on our behalf.”

This is not an isolated anecdote. From Kolkata’s Park Street to remote villages, those who are even a little disinclined towards the ruling Trinamool Congress government, feel that the election is a futile, rigged exercise. Nobody’s particularly outraged at this, though, because they say this is how it has been. Polling booths were managed by the ruling party, people allege, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election too, just as the CPM-led Left Front used to conduct “scientific rigging” to win elections.

In fact, the “machinery” or muscle men who execute the “scientific rigging” simply changed their flags one day, when Bengal revolted against the Left Front and chose the TMC. There is no place left in India, not even the Kashmir Valley, where elections are so widely seen as rigged. People report going to the polling booths and being told their vote has been cast, or not allowed to even see the EVM machine after their fingers are inked, and often told to just stay at home.

Ghost votes, they are called.

What is particularly strange about the Trinamool Congress’ defiance of the Election Commission’s efforts to hold a free and fair poll is that Mamata Banerjee remains popular amongst voters. It is her party which has taken a beating. “Didi send money from Kolkata for development,” says Nurul Haq, “But her party people put it in their pockets.”

The CPM-Congress alliance took off too late, only by the end of February. In its unofficial chief ministerial candidate, Surjya Kanta Mishra, it does not have a face that could take on Mamata Banerjee’s stature. Most of all, Mamata Banerjee has delivered visible development and doles: roads, streetlights, bicycles and other freebies for schoolchildren, employment as civil police for the youth, and so on.

It is baffling then, that the Trinamool Congress should allow the perception that it is not letting CPM-Congress voters cast their votes. TMC leaders are openly threatening voters. In Birbhum district, where too many seats have a close contest, district president of TMC, Anubrata Mandal, has been put under surveillance by the Election Commission after he threatened voters.

In the same district, another TMC leader, Abdul Mannan, told voters, “We take care of you all year and you don't repay us — this will not be tolerated any more."

Back in Burdwan, in other houses in Nurul Haq’s village, Trinamool supporters cited the TMC’s development. As is the case everywhere in Bengal, party flags delineated territory.

The village sarpanch is from the CPM, and has the largest house in the village. Around his house everyone’s a CPM supporters, but flags of both parties abound. One young man explains the meaning of the flags next to each other: “It is a signal of peace. It means we don’t want any fighting.”

One old man arrives and asks if we are from the Election Commission. He wants to talk to someone in the EC and explain that he doesn’t feel safe casting his vote.

Ask CPM supporters how is this any different from how things used to be under their rule. They say that the CPM government was a thief but Trinamool is a dacoit. The admission that they support a party they call thieves, tells you why nothing is going to change in Bengal politics.

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