Security personnel rush towards the area where CPM supporters were attacked in Haroa on Monday. Picture by Amit Datta
Calcutta, May 13: Senior Election Commission officials today expressed surprise at reports of electoral malpractice despite the presence of 500 companies of central forces in the fifth polling phase in Bengal, the concern capturing the lacunae in assessing the need for central forces and their deployment.
After going through reports of complaints and malpractice at a meeting in Nirvachan Sadan, the commission brass decided to seek separate reports from Bengal chief electoral officer Sunil Kumar Gupta and special state observer Sudhir Kumar Rakesh.
“The commission had sent 500-odd companies of central forces for the 17 constituencies (that voted yesterday). This was the densest deployment of central forces on poll duty in recent memory,” a Nirvachan Sadan source said today.
There are 119 Assembly segments in the 17 Lok Sabha seats. For the 294 Assembly seats in the 2011 elections, around 600 companies of central forces had been sent.
“Despite such heavy deployment yesterday, more than 100 complaints of violence, intimidation, clashes and electoral malpractice were lodged. This has not gone down well with the commission,” the source said.
Another source said the decision to seek reports was taken to see how so many incidents of malpractice took place despite such heavy central force deployment.
“Proper assessment of what happened on the ground can be a case study and we can draw lessons from it so that a more fool-proof arrangement can be made for the 2016 Assembly polls in Bengal,” said a member of the commission’s directorate.
The Telegraph spoke to several poll officials, police personnel and senior politicians to understand how malpractice and central forces can co-exist and how the existing system was falling short.
After his first tryst with villagers in Bengal, special observer Sudhir Kumar Rakesh, who was gheraoed in Haroa after CPM supporters were attacked by suspected Trinamul activists yesterday, was heard murmuring: “The vulnerability assessment was not done properly.”
Rakesh was surprised that many places where violence was reported had not been marked as “vulnerable” by the administration.
Ideally, vulnerability mapping of an area mainly involves compilation of reports from the grassroots. The reports are mostly based on information gathered by the local police and the district intelligence branch, sources said.
Through vulnerability mapping, the government identifies sensitive and normal booths.
Based on several parameters such as past incidents of electoral violence and malpractice, deteriorating law and order and high polling percentage in previous elections, booths are divided into three categories — highly sensitive, sensitive and normal.
The first decision on the vulnerability of the booths is taken at the block level.
“The officer in charge of the local police station draws up the first list. The final list at the block level is drawn up following a meeting between the BDO and the OC. Usually, the district magistrate ratifies the list once it reaches him through the superintendent of police,” a senior government official said.
According to him, if the list is not drawn up properly at the block stage, there is every chance that the flaws will be overlooked at higher levels.
“In Bengal, the problem is the block-level lists are not prepared properly. The ruling party puts pressure on BDOs and OCs to classify sensitive booths as normal,” another Nabanna official said.
Another problem, the official said, was that the Opposition is not involved in the process of drawing up the list.
“Unless the Opposition’s concerns are considered, vulnerability mapping cannot be fool-proof and the deployment process becomes faulty,” the official said.
The deployment plan is drawn up on the basis of vulnerability lists. In a highly sensitive booth, at least four central force personnel are deployed. A normal booth is manned by not more than two state police personnel. So faulty mapping leads to lopsided force deployment.
Several returning officers pointed out another key flaw in deployment planning, which is done by the state police directorate and sanctioned by the state chief electoral officer on behalf of the poll panel. The deployment formula, they said, is worked out much before the force distribution plan is finalised.
According to the formula approved this time, there was no provision for deployment of central forces in single-booth premises. Of the 77,252 booths in the state, around 50 per cent were single-polling station premises and so did not have central force cover irrespective of their sensitivity.
On the other hand, premises with three or more booths in areas seen as peaceful, such as Ballygunj, Jodhpur Park and New Alipore, got heavy central force deployment.
But more than 60 per cent booths in a constituency like Basirhat, which has a history of poll violence, did not get central forces as the premises had only one booth each.
“Because such a formula was approved by CEO Gupta ahead of the polls, four to eight central force personnel were deployed in booths in Ballygunj, while there were none in booths in Haroa,” said a returning officer for a south Bengal constituency. CPM supporters suffered injuries in a bomb-and-bullet attack in Haroa yesterday.
Sources said two allied duties of the central forces — area domination and sectoral surveillance — suffered because of their dependence on state police personnel.
“Finding their way in urban sectors they are not familiar with is difficult enough for the central forces. Doing the same in rural belts is even more difficult. In Haroa, for instance, the sectoral teams of central forces were not taken to the area where the attack took place later. So there was no confidence-building in the area,” a source said.
With the change of guard in Bengal in 2011, there has been a sea change in the control and supervision of lower-rung officials by the chief minister.
Earlier, transfers and postings of district magistrates and additional district magistrates were handled by the chief minister. Transfers of officials at lower levels were monitored by the chief secretary and the personnel and administrative reforms secretary.
“Now, the chief minister directly handles and intervenes in matters relating to transfers and postings of even BDOs. At the drop of a hat, these officials get phone calls. That is why they are under immense political pressure, unprecedented in their career,” a senior Nabanna official said.
The official said the same applied to the police administration as well, with OCs being monitored from the top.
As BDOs and OCs play a key role in identifying vulnerable areas, they often do not prepare proper reports under political pressure, the official said.