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EC seeks report on 43 booths, gives voice to candidates

Calcutta, May 3: The Election Commission today sought a report on polling in 43 booths in the third phase of Lok Sabha elections in Bengal and formed a committee that would have to take the opinion of candidates into account while reassessing booth sensitivity for the last two legs.

The committee has as members special observer Sudhir Kumar Rakesh, Bengal chief electoral officer Sunil Kumar Gupta and additional director-general (law and order) M.K. Singh.

The committee will have to factor in the opinion of the candidates besides taking into account reports from the districts’ administration. Earlier, reports were prepared on the basis of inputs from the districts.

“The commission was not pleased to see the extent of violence and intimidation reported in the media in the third phase. Therefore, the sensitivity of the next two phases ought to be assessed again. Listening to candidates of all parties is necessary,” a source said tonight.

The committee is expected to begin work tomorrow.

Sources in the commission said the report on the 43 booths was sought as the panel was “concerned” that poll observers under Rakesh had sent feedback that made no mention of malpractice despite over 2,000 complaints by the Opposition.

Sources said 26 of the 43 booths were in Hooghly, 11 in Birbhum, five in Howrah and one in Burdwan. According to Opposition complaints, the maximum number of incidents of violence and electoral malpractice had taken place in Birbhum and Hooghly.

“The commission has sought a detailed report on and video footage of voting in some booths where re-polling might be necessary,” a commission source said tonight.

The Election Commission, which was to recommend re-polling wherever necessary on Thursday afternoon, did not do so because the scrutiny reports did not mention any malpractice. Rakesh had said polling had been “absolutely free, fair and peaceful”.

Election officials said the move to seek a report from Gupta was significant because Rakesh had been sent to the state as special observer in the aftermath of numerous complaints of bias and inaction against the chief electoral officer and several other poll officials. Rakesh had been entrusted with powers almost equal to that of Gupta.

“Asking for the report from Gupta somewhat indicates a erosion of faith in Rakesh,” an election official in south Bengal said.

Gupta, like Rakesh, had said after polling on Wednesday that from “what we have gathered, 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”.

Calls to Gupta’s phone this evening went unanswered.

The sources said the commission took the decision to seek the report after official complaints were lodged against Rakesh by the Left, Congress and the BJP.

“The commission cannot disregard such serious concerns voiced by all the three major parties of the Bengal Opposition and the media,” the source said.

Earlier in the day, Rakesh told journalists that he would act only on “specific complaints” of electoral malpractice, prompting district officials to say they were confused because he had earlier “instructed” them to treat all Opposition allegations “very seriously, regardless of their specificity”.

Rakesh, whom the Election Commission is set to ask why he left Bengal for three days ahead of Wednesday’s polling and why he was not in office till afternoon that day, said today while touring West Midnapore: “I have not got any specific complaints about malpractice in the polls that have been held so far. I will act provided I get specific complaints of malpractice. I have been doing what the EC expects of me.”

Several officials in the districts, briefed earlier by Rakesh in the aftermath of Opposition complaints of bias and inaction against a section of the administration, expressed “surprise” at the special observer’s “change of heart”.

“He had told us it was the EC’s policy to treat the Opposition’s complaints very seriously, regardless of their specificity, during an election process,” a senior district official said.

A police officer said: “We are confused by Rakesh’s comments today. He had warned us of strict action if we went easy on complaints against the ruling party.”

Repeated calls to Rakesh’s cellphone to verify if he had given such instructions went unanswered.

CPM state secretariat member Rabin Deb said the party had lodged “hundreds of very specific complaints” with Rakesh and Nirvachan Sadan.

Left and BJP delegations have met the commission brass in Delhi in the past two days to submit complaints against Rakesh and demand his removal. State Congress president Adhir Chowdhury has written to chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath, demanding Rakesh’s removal.

Today, Chowdhury said free, fair and peaceful polls in the remaining two phases would not be possible if Rakesh continued as special observer.

“We have no faith in Rakesh, who did not act on our complaints. There is no chance for free and fair polls under Rakesh’s stewardship,” he said.

The commission, according to the sources, will ask Rakesh how urgent it was for him to leave Bengal for three days ahead of Wednesday’s polling.

The sources said he could be “reprimanded”.

Nirvachan Sadan sources said the commission was not yet mulling Rakesh’s removal. “He should be given a fair chance to explain himself first. He has the track record of being an excellent overseer of electioneering. So far, he had just one bad day in office. Let’s see,” said a source.