Calcutta, March 19: The state election commission’s recommendation to deploy at least two armed police personnel in each of the 58,000-odd booths has virtually made two-phase panchayat elections a mathematical impossibility if central forces are not called in.
After months of tussle between the poll panel and the Mamata Banerjee government over a host of issues concerning the conduct of the elections, the hurdle now, according to Writers’ Buildings sources, is getting enough armed forces to guard the booths.
To hold the polls in two phases, the state will need around 20,000 personnel from outside as Bengal’s own armed police strength is 46,000, of which 38,000 can be released for electioneering.
While the state election commission wants three-phase polls in the presence of central forces, the government is in favour of a two-leg exercise using forces from Bengal and other states.
Home department officials said central, eastern and northeastern states could not release more than 800-1,500 personnel each. The Bengal government has so far approached Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and Chhattisgarh.
To get 20,000 personnel, over a dozen states will have to release forces, which will be a “tough ask”, the sources said.
“For instance, we had sent nine companies (900 personnel) of our armed police personnel to Assam last year. In return, we cannot expect more than 10 companies. The story is similar with other states. It will be a tough ask to arrange for 200 companies of armed police personnel from neighbouring states,” an official said.
“Involving 12 or more states will mean seeking forces from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan or Maharashtra. We have seldom had such exchanges with them,” he added.
Although the deployment of central forces could have helped solve the problem, Mamata is “dead against” doing so because that would send the message that her administration does not have the confidence to tackle law-and-order challenges.
Home department officials said they were keeping their “fingers crossed” that Mamata would have a “change of heart” so that the impasse over poll phases and deployment could be ended.
“Even if central forces are out of the question, the existing (state) forces can be used effectively in a three-phase election. As long as there are two armed personnel per booth, the poll panel has hinted that it won’t object to the absence of central forces,” a home department official said.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed for the chief minister to concede some ground… The panchayat minister (Subrata Mukherjee) will try to impress upon her the need to yield a little, one way or the other, when she returns (from her Jungle Mahal trip),” he added.
Mukherjee said this evening that he would have a “thorough discussion” with Mamata after she returns tomorrow. “We will inform the commission of our decision after the meeting,” Mukherjee said.