A political tussle has commenced over the elections for four municipal corporations to be held in West Bengal where Covid cases are rapidly multiplying, fuelled largely by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Civic polls for Bidhannagar, Chandannagar, Asansol and Siliguri are due on January 22. The opposition BJP and Left Front are asking how elections can be held in the present situation. The ruling Trinamool Congress is retorting that the Election Commission of India did not heed its request to merge the last few rounds of the eight-phase assembly polls in April-May 2021 when the second wave of Covid was wreaking havoc. The BJP was silent at the time, the TMC alleges.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee was in Gangasagar last week when she spoke about some restrictions to be put in place because of the pandemic surge, including possible school-college closure. BJP state president Sukanta Majumder had responded that if the situation is worrying, then the civic polls should also be postponed.
After that, however, the opposition party did not directly ask the State Election Commission to defer the polls. State BJP spokesperson Shamik Bhattacharya said, “The Election Commission will take the decision. In this situation, it will be clear that vote is more valuable to the TMC than human life. In a situation of panic, elections can’t happen normally.”
The Calcutta High Court on Thursday reserved judgment over a plea seeking the cancellation of this year’s Gangasagar Mela, an annual Hindu pilgrimage where lakhs of people gather around Makar Sankranti, amidst the fresh surge in Covid cases. A bench comprising Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Kesang Doma Bhutia orally remarked, “We have not made up our mind, we will examine it and we will pass an appropriate order.”
West Bengal recorded 15,421 new daily Covid cases on Thursday, with 19 fresh fatalities.
The Trinamool Congress has been pointing out that it, along with the CPI(M) and Congress, were vocal in their demand for the last three rounds of last year’s assembly polls to be clubbed together to thwart Covid spread. Voting was suspended at two centres because of the deaths of two candidates from the Left and Congress, while one Trinamool candidate died before the results were declared. Several CPI(M) candidates stopped campaigning in Kolkata. But the election was still held in 8 phases.
“Despite the dire situation in the state at that time, the BJP was busy bringing Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to the meetings. Then they had the dream to occupy Bengal. Now, at the time of civic elections, they remember Covid,” said Trinamool MP Sukhendu Sekhar Ray. “Even public meetings in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are not following the rules. Let’s demand those elections to be postponed first.”
BJP’s Samik Bhattacharya responded to Trinamool’s charge. “It is not a question of the BJP remaining silent at that time. The Election Commission organised the assembly polls in 8 phases due to the law and order situation in Bengal. Post-election terror killed 46 people. If it continues like this, Bengal will have to vote not only in 8 phases, but 18 phases, and even after that the central forces will be needed for three months.”
CPI(M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty also said on Wednesday that the decision to hold voting on January 22 and counting on January 25, all adjacent to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s birthday (January 23), National Voters’ Day (January 25) and Republic Day (January 26), was not correct. “The Left Front has already stated this in a letter. Now the Covid situation has been added. We are postponing many party conferences. Is it possible to do the election at this time?” he said.
A Congress delegation, led by former MLA Asit Mitra, wrote a letter to the commission the same day, demanding security for candidates, party workers and voters. They also complained that there were no signs that rules would be followed.