Many an eyebrow had been raised when it was announced on February 26 that the West Bengal Assembly elections would be held in eight phases from March 27 to April 29 — just five days short of the duration of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), in particular, had questioned the rationale for the long-drawn-out polling schedule amid the onset of the second wave of the pandemic. The alarming surge in Covid cases in the state this week and the poll violence that claimed four lives in Cooch Behar district on April 10 have underscored the urgent need to revise the schedule and wrap up the elections at the earliest. Even as the fifth phase of voting is slated for today, Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee has urged the Election Commission of India (ECI) to club the remaining phases. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury has also asked the poll panel to quickly take a call on this pressing issue.
The Covid situation in West Bengal, which has witnessed a succession of crowded election rallies and road shows over the past three weeks, has gone from bad to worse — primarily due to large-scale violations of the safety protocols. The state’s caseload, which was only 800-plus on March 26, a day before the first phase, shot up to nearly 6,800 on April 15. During the first wave last year, the highest number of single-day infections was around 4,100, recorded in October.
The firing by CISF personnel outside a polling booth at Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar during the fourth phase and other incidents of violence have prompted the ECI to enhance the deployment of security forces so as to ensure that the remaining phases pass off peacefully. However, it’s a Herculean task as the majority of the booths in 114 poll-bound constituencies have been categorised as sensitive. It will be a huge challenge in terms of logistics to hold three phases together, but the exceptional circumstances necessitate that such an exercise should be undertaken in the best interests of all stakeholders.