Central forces pour in as West Bengal gets set to vote in panchayat polls

So far, 18 people have died in poll-related violence; only 585 of the 822 companies of Central forces scheduled to be deployed during the polls had arrived in the State by July 7 afternoon

July 07, 2023 09:19 pm | Updated July 08, 2023 12:01 am IST - KOLKATA

Polling personnel collects electoral materials ahead of panchayat polls in West Bengal, on July 7, 2023.

Polling personnel collects electoral materials ahead of panchayat polls in West Bengal, on July 7, 2023. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

West Bengal is set to go to the polls on July 8 to elect 73,887 panchayat representatives, in a high-stakes contest that is being seen as a critical indicator during the run-up to next year’s general election.

A Congress worker in Murshidabad died on the eve of the voting, becoming the 18th victim of political violence since the poll notification was issued on June 8. Though 822 companies of Central forces were set to be deployed in the polls, only 585 had arrived in the State by Friday afternoon.

Crucial contest

About 5.67 crore electors are eligible to exercise their franchise in the elections for 63,239 seats at the gram panchayats, 9,730 panchayat samiti seats and 928 zilla parishad seats.

The main contest is expected to be between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, but the Left Front and the Congress are also trying to make a turnaround in the rural polls. The TMC has raised the Centre’s denial of funds to the State as a key issue, including for flagship rural employment guarantee scheme MGNREGA. The Opposition has raised the issue of corruption in rural bodies in its campaigns.

The Trinamool Congress is contesting 72,000 seats, while the BJP has fielded candidates for about 46,000 seats. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is contesting 42,000 seats, and the Congress is contesting for about 14,000 seats, while independent candidates have filed about 20,000 nominations for the rural polls. Polling will be held across 61,636 polling booths, using ballot papers.

Also Read | Unedifying row: On panchayat polls in West Bengal and security

Central forces being deployed

Just hours before voting was set to begin, there was frantic activity at the State’s Election Commission on Friday regarding the deployment of Central forces. As per the orders of the Calcutta High Court, 822 companies of Central forces (involving about 65,000 personnel) will be deployed across the polling booths along with an equal number of State police personnel. 

Till Friday afternoon, only 585 companies of Central forces had arrived in the State. In certain cases, Central forces were airlifted to the State so that they could be pressed into deployment at the polling booths by Saturday morning. The Commission has come up with the formula of deploying one member of the Central forces alongside each member of the State armed police.

The deployment comes after a month-long legal battle, with the High Court’s order to deploy Central forces upheld by the Supreme Court. The High Court has directed Central forces to remain in the State for ten days after the election process concludes, to curb any incidents of post-poll violence. 

18th poll violence victim

West Bengal Governor C.V. Ananda Bose urged voters to come out in large numbers and exercise their franchise in the panchayat polls, just a day after he launched a scathing attack on State Election Commissioner Rajiva Sinha, blamingd him for the “bodies on the streets”. Dr. Bose spent part of the day in Murshidabad, where poll-related violence has claimed five lives, and visited the Khragram home of one of the alleged victims, a TMC worker.

On the same day, Congress worker Arvind Mondal was killed at Raninagar in the Murshidabad district, and his family blamed TMC supporters for the violence. The majority of the 18 people killed in poll-related incidents since June 8 are TMC supporters, and Murshidabad, South 24 Parganas and Cooch Behar districts have emerged as the hot spots of the violence.

Meanwhile, the Calcutta High Court set aside a petition by the Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari seeking directions against the order by the State Election Commission that has restricted his movement to the area where he is a voter. The Commission issued an order on July 4, pointing out that those who have been given security cover by Central forces will not be allowed near polling booths except in places where they can exercise their franchise.

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