The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ballot in battle fatigues

Calcutta, April 16: Few elections in Bengal have had to be initiated military-style, with an Indian Air Force Mi 17 helicopter hovering over the forests of Belpahari, Jhilimili and Bandwan. The first of the five-phase hustings will be rung in tomorrow with the chop-chop of rotor blades cutting air.

Elections come to Bengal tomorrow in battle fatigues. The Election Commission has deployed 60,000 central paramilitary forces in the districts of Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore.

This is probably the most low-key elections ever ' graffiti, posters, festoons and banners are scant. The Election Commission’s business-like approach means that polls are no big deal. At the same time, it means that the festivity associated with the “urge to vote” in Bengal ' that notches up turnouts between 75 and 85 per cent ' will be lacklustre.

Problems can arise as the security forces from out of the state ' many of whom have served in Kashmir ' will not be used to long queues in front of booths.

Biman Bose, the CPM state secretary, devoted 60 minutes of a 90-minute media interaction yesterday to lambasting the poll panel. The Trinamul, the Congress and the BJP collectively did not merit the 20 minutes he devoted to talking about the Maoist movement in the state. It is ironical that the only opposition Biman babu considered worthy is outside the electoral fray.

But the Maoist insurgency is not threatening enough to warrant a five-phase poll. B.B. Tandon can take a lesson from a predecessor.

In 1995, T.N. Seshan was taught a lesson by Lalu Prasad. That year, the commission kept deferring polls in Bihar. But Lalu Prasad returned to power with an overwhelming majority riding the anti-establishment vote. Seshan’s poll panel was branded the Establishment.

In Bengal this time, the Opposition is not organised enough ' it is split in three ' to mop up the anti-incumbency vote. The Election Commission could well end up guaranteeing for the CPM a larger share in the Assembly than it actually deserves.

That can make very little difference in the three districts that the polls will begin from tomorrow.

Of the 45 seats in Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore, the Left Front had won in 40 in the last (2001) elections. The call for a poll boycott by the Maoists is unlikely to impact more than six constituencies. The higher the turnout, the larger will be the margin of the Left’s victories in these seats.

In the 2001 polls, of the 11 seats in Purulia, two went to the Opposition. The rest went into the Left’s kitty.

The only keen contest of the 13 in Bankura district is in the seat for the district headquarters. Trinamul’s Kashinath Mishra is pitted against former minister Partha De from the CPM for the Bankura seat.

West Midnapore, with 21 seats, has always been a Left stronghold. In 2001, the Opposition got just three seats.

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