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‘Soft rigging’ under commission’s radar

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Calcutta, April 30: The Election Commission’s special observer, Sudhir Kumar Rakesh, today said he could not say whether the third phase of polling in Bengal was peaceful but added that it was free and fair.

The chief electoral officer of the state, Sunil Kumar Gupta, said that “from what we have gathered so far, there was no interruption or obstruction of polls, no booth capturing, no poll vitiation, no vote unlawfully recorded, no serious complaints from candidates or parties, no mistakes or irregularities, no violence to disrupt polls”.

The Telegraph catalogued 610 alleged instances of foul play, based on conversations with villagers, Opposition leaders and police sources. The Trinamul Congress denied any hand in any of the alleged instances of booth capturing and intimidation.

With 348 complaints, the topper on this list was Birbhum district, where Trinamul is led by Anubrata Mondal who had been certified “khub bhalo chhele” (very good boy) by Mamata Banerjee.

The Opposition complained of rigging in as many as 826 booths, with Birbhum district accounting for as many as 523 booths.

Rigging alone cannot usually see a party through but what impact it will have in Bengal — against the backdrop of the unparalleled four-cornered contest — is not clear.

The “success” of the alleged rigging hinged on the absence of large-scale violence — a factor that appears to have weighed on the special observer’s mind while describing the polling as free and fair.

“Was there any murder or attack on the CPM?” asked Mondal, responding to the Opposition party’s demand for repolling.

The conversations reporters of this newspaper had with several villagers in Birbhum and Burdwan suggested that brazen intimidation accomplished the rigging mission without spilling much blood.

Door-to-door threats were issued a few days before the polling, according to many CPM supporters. On polling day, Opposition polling agents were driven out and the assailants took over the booths.

Left supporters who defied the warning and turned up to vote were bluntly told inside some booths which button they should punch, according to several villagers in Bolpur.

Cowering presiding officers, largely based in the constituency itself and at the mercy of the ruling party after the elections, had little option but to remain mute spectators, police sources said.

Election Commission sources said local officials were not meant to be used as presiding officers. However, a reporter of this newspaper saw a local teacher presiding over a booth in the Birbhum seat. Asked, the teacher said he was a resident as well as a voter of the constituency.

Such “soft” tactics did not take lives — though grievous injuries were reported — which meant that many places wore a peaceful appearance to the outside world if it cared to look.

The commission may also not have got the full picture because live webcasting was not foolproof today. From the 366 webcams placed in as many booths for live webcasting of the voting, feeds from around 180 were not available for most of the day. However, it is not clear if any of the 180 snag-hit booths fell in Birbhum and Burdwan.

The unhindered intimidation also ensured that the riggers did not need to depend too much on “booth jamming” — a tactic once associated with the CPM that used to plant people in queues to ensure that they don’t move. The intention was to tire out genuine voters and make them leave so that false votes could be cast.

A downside of booth jamming is that snaking queues draw unwelcome attention.

The Opposition alleged that jamming was in evidence today, too. But with most polling agents being driven away and the intruders taking over booths unchallenged in villages, there was no need to place riggers in the blazing sun and make them fry.

Special observer Rakesh said: “I cannot say if the polls were peaceful, but the third phase was free and fair, much like the previous phases.”

Rakesh said he received over 300 phone calls and more than 150 text messages complaining of electoral malpractice. “Most of those who called or texted could not provide details about the constituency or booths. In cases where the complainants have provided the details, it has been found that most of the booths had CRPF cover. Every complaint was looked into,” said Rakesh.

“There have been many baseless complaints. However, we are taking reports on each valid complaint. If the administration submits a wrong report, we will take action,” he added.

Rakesh and Bengal chief electoral officer Gupta said any decision on repolling would be taken tomorrow.

Special observer Rakesh, who was sent to Bengal because of complaints against local officials, had said he had “the medicine for every problem in Birbhum”.

But, on Wednesday evening, the last laugh literally belonged to Mondal. When Rakesh appeared on television screens, Mondal was watching in Bolpur.

Mondal smiled and said: “What had he said? He has the correct medicine for me? He didn’t know that here, in this place of Tagore, rigging does not take place.”


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