Anticipating mayhem of violence, Election Commission declared 8 phase poll in West Bengal that aggrieved Mamata Banerjee & LEFTs. She alleged 8 phase poll would favour BJP and pinched with sarcasm, ‘they’d play football for 23 days in West Bengal’. While Pradesh Congress President Adhir Chowdhury welcomed ECI’s decision of the 8 phase poll, Rahul Gandhi’s close aide Saket Gokhale criticised it to the tune of Mamata Banerjee exposing the rift within Congress again. Even LEFTs opposed 8 phase poll, subtly signalling their readiness for a post-poll coalition with Mamata Banerjee if need be.
Leaving aside political slugfest, what could be the administrative reasons behind ECI’s planning 8 phase poll in West Bengal? In 2011, Bengal Assembly Poll was held in 6 phases, while in 2016, it was a 7 phase one. 8 phase poll in 2021 that way falls on the line of the rising trend as per expectation. Moreover, about 7,32,94,980 electors would cast votes this year compared to 6,59,39,006 electors of 2016, recording a 73 lacs rise in voters' number. More than a 10% rise in the number of voters’ too, maybe a reason behind the rise in a number of phases during the Covid pandemic.
Considering Covid, Election Commission has allowed a maximum of 1000 voters/booth instead of 1500/booth as earlier. The total number of booths has thus increased from 77413 to 101916 this year. As each booth would accommodate maximum of 1000 voters, 101916 booths can let 10 crores 19 lacs 16 thousand people cast their votes while the approximate total number of registered voters of West Bengal this year is about 7,32,94,980. By distributing 7,32,94,980 voters into 101916 booths, desirable social distancing can be maintained to facilitate Covid-safe Election and minimise booth jamming.
It seems the Election Commission has calculated the number of booths based on Bengal’s 2021’s projected population, which is 10.19 Crore. This implies—even if the whole populace of West Bengal comes to cast votes, none of 101916 booths would have to accommodate more than 1000 voters. They have emphasised the maintenance of a Covid-safe protocol which is praiseworthy. Post-poll Covid surge is not desired, especially in a densely populated state like West Bengal. However, political parties would indeed be prepared with details like what percentage of the West Bengal population are voters and the exact number of voters in each Constituency. Fraudulent votes have traditionally won West Bengal Elections. Hence, enlisted voters of each Constituency and an actual number of existing voters on the ground need to be regressed. Booth workers of political parties do this work making booth-level political battles wild and ferocious where opponents fight tooth n nail, hammer n tong. State Police hardly come to any help as Police & Administration of Bengal is politicised in favour of the ruling party & there’s no dearth of corroborative evidence to substantiate such allegation.
The other probable reason behind the 8 phase poll is an insufficiency of the number & preparedness of West Bengal’s own Police Force. In the last 10 years, the Government of West Bengal has not recruited a new Police Force in the proper Government Scale through the appropriate channel. Neither the Government has updated existing Force with training & modern ammunitions. Civic Police of West Bengal allegedly are TMC cadres receiving meagre amounts as monthly salary & freedom to extort money from common people on various excuses. They say, “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”.
Moreover, while West Bengal’s population-density is higher than National PD, the State’s Police Population Ratio is much lower than the National Ratio. In 2018, the total number of Sanctioned Police posts in West Bengal was 1,11,176 out of which 35,000 were vacant, leaving 31.48% of sanctioned police posts vacant. In 2019, the total number of Sanctioned Police posts increased to 1,40,904 out of which 48,981 remained vacant, leaving 34.76% of sanctioned posts vacant. Thus, vacant police post % increased further in 2019 from that of 2018. As per current data, while India's police-population ratio is 138 policemen per lac population, West Bengal’s PP Ratio is only 92 per lac of State population. PP Ratio in 2018 of WB was even lower. 77 per lakh.
Election Commission, hence, can’t depend much on State Force for Security arrangements. This is based on repeated complaints docketed by opposition leaders about biased functioning of State Administration in favour of the ruling party. As Commission has to bank mainly on Central Forces, that would elongate the WB Election period than in other States. Last but not least, poll-goons of West Bengal who create booth-level terror with arms & bombs etc., would face a stiff challenge from Central Forces this year, as 8 phase poll would facilitate the concentration of Central Forces in comparatively smaller areas. The force can intercept goons in sufficient number to let people vote hassle-free. It’s not going to be a cakewalk for ruling party goons this year.