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Election violence has rendered naked the need for reform of its political culture

With paramilitary forces struggling to keep the peace in Bengal, India’s bloodiest election in recent history is dangerously poised. Violence has steadily escalated with each phase, casting grave doubts on the Election Commission’s decision to do polling in eight phases. Admittedly, more law enforcement and polling officers can be posted in each constituency when polls are staggered. But in Bengal the campaigning is extremely polarising and two sides evenly matched in resources and motivation are locked in a seemingly do-or-die battle. Each blames the other for the violence and is actively prodding mistrust of authorities and communities. So the multiple phases seem to have escalated physical confrontations instead of dampening them.

Rumours and misinformation culminating in the CISF firing at Cooch Behar leading to four deaths highlights Bengal’s present plight. CISF personnel had reportedly helped a boy, but such has been the vilification of central forces by TMC that this was a tragedy waiting to happen. A Bihar SHO lynched in North Dinajpur district was another victim amid a general state of lawlessness.

EC has barred netas from Cooch Behar and extended silent campaigning to 72 hours after issuing notices for Model Code violations served no purpose. Dramatis personae in the battle for Bengal include India’s tallest politicians like PM Modi and CM Banerjee. Policing political statements, unless there’s outright incitement of violence, is inconclusive and often leads to allegations of bias. Amid Bengal’s divisive campaigning, safeguarding the lives and votes of every candidate and elector is the best EC can do for free and fair elections. As for speeches, EC must trust voters to see through demagoguery.

Staggering constituencies within districts across polling phases, instead of completing adjacent regions before moving on, hasn’t helped. As these elections interminably drag on, people’s lives are in suspension awaiting an end to the bloodletting. Meanwhile, Covid trends sharp north. In Bengal today, social distancing would reduce both political violence and fresh infections. At the helm for 10 years, Mamata owns the blame here. With political violence also taking communal overtones, Bengal’s future raises worries, to put it mildly. In the immediate term, the task is wrapping up elections safely. But in the longer term, whoever forms the next government must be held to account for making electoral contests as non-violent as they are in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and other states. Overall the culture of political violence in Bengal is untenable.



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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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