A political worker’s three-year-old granddaughter was also beaten up when goons raided his residence late in the night and thrashed the members of his family. Why? To keep them from voting the morning after.

For a moment though, forget the political affiliation of the henchmen or the victim. The incident is a chilling reminder of two axiomatic truths in West Bengal. One, violence is the norm, not aberration during polls. Two, since violence replaces ideas and ideologies as the key to power, the ruling party uses every trick in the book to perpetrate it.

A strange perversion takes place in the order of polity. Lawkeepers are blamed for trying to maintain law and order and creating an atmosphere of safety for voters to cast their ballots. Goons in tow, party leaders take umbrage at not being allowed to break the rule.

Adult suffrage is the cornerstone of democracy. But only when it is free and fair. If the rules of the game are cynically subverted, question must be raised whether merely holding elections is proof enough of a functional democracy.

Representational image. PTIRepresentational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

To be fair to the ruling Trinamool Congress party, it did not pioneer the state’s culture of violence during polls. The Left Front, now at the receiving end of own medicine, had for decades perfected the art. Its armies of local toughs, henchmen and cadres would go about threatening voters, eliminating them if necessary and rig polls with such élan that a term called ‘scientific rigging’ was added to Bengal’s voting lexicon.

If anything, the job has become tougher for the party in power. There is the omnipresent media with a battery of reporters and video journalists. The Election Commission is armed to the teeth via a constitutional statute and has shown that it is ready to bare fangs. In fact, so tight was the vigil on Monday during Phase 4 of the Assembly elections that many TMC leaders were extremely peeved with the EC for “acting as CPIM agents and creating terror”.

That doesn’t mean that the ruling party was found wanting in effort.

Hoodlums, allegedly associated with Trinamool Congress, threatened the family members of CPIM polling agent Tito Samajpati on Sunday night in Barendra Nagar area of Halishahar, a constituency in North 24 Parganas which went to vote on Monday. The family’s mistake was to dial the number of local CPM candidate Rabindranath Mukherjee who alerted the cops. A team of local police and central forces arrived to meet the family.

No sooner did they leave, however, goons returned, this time allegedly armed with revolvers. They barged into the rooms, beat up the unwell Samajpati, his daughter Debashree and also didn’t spare the little Sayantika who took some blows on her tender arms. The toddler’s feed was kicked around and the rooms ransacked. Debashree’s 16-year-old son and husband were thrashed too.

Bijpur MLA Subhrangshu Roy, son of TMC heavyweight Mukul Roy whose name has been linked to the Narada sting, was quick to deny his party’s involvement.

“What has happened is extremely unfortunate and despicable. I condemn it. No link has yet been established between the attackers and TMC. Police are conducting an inquiry. We, too, are looking into the incident at the party level. Anyone found guilty must face strict punishment,“ Roy was quoted, as saying in Times of India.

If the attack was aimed at intimidating the voters and sending a message, then the goons failed in their task as the spirited Debashree, under the supervision of an EC team who took suo motu cognisance of the incident, took the baby in the crook of her arms on Monday and exercised her democratic right.

The question, though, is this. In Monday’s fourth phase, voting was held across 49 seats involving 1.08 crore voters in about 12,500 polling stations. Is it possible for the EC to keep a close eye over every booth in every constituency?

“No,” says Tanmay Bhattacharya. The CPIM candidate from Dum Dum north bled from deep cuts in his hand when alleged TMC goons threw stones at his car, smashing the windshield and injuring him.
“The EC and central forces have done a commendable job. But it is not possible for them to scan all lanes and bylanes of every ward. The goons play hide and seek with security personnel. They lie low when a vehicle passes and spring a mischief the moment law enforcers are out of sight,” Bhattcharya was quoted as saying in TV channels on Monday.

The question, therefore, is one of intent.

The EC and its army of 90000 forces (including state police) performed a mini miracle on Monday. They chased away outsiders, lathicharged on troublemakers, clamped down on illegal assembly, tried to remove false voting, and generally kept the local toughs and goons on their toes. Central forces scanned media vehicles, ambulances and even police vans. A total of 229 arrests were made on Monday alone out of which 207 were preventive. The police, too, marked a dramatic improvement in their performance, a far cry from 2015 when they stayed as mute spectators and gangs took control of civic body polls.

Faced with such pro-activeness from security personnel TMC were thoroughly disgruntled, led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

“The EC is preventing people from voting by clamping Section 144. This is uncalled for. Has a curfew been imposed? Our flags, party offices have been demolished by central forces. Why just stop at 6 phases, why not hold voting over 294 phases in 294 seats,” the TMC supremo said at a rally in Patuli on Monday evening.

Taking a cue from her, TMC ministers fired salvo after salvo against the EC. Outgoing finance minister Amit Mitra, agriculture minister Purnendu Basu and marketing minister Arup Ray complained that due to the “terror” launched by central forces, “people were not allowed to vote freely and fairly”. Basu even went on to say that this was an “undeclared emergency”.

Bucking the usual trend in polls in Bengal, there was no miraculous spike in voting percentage in the late hours of Monday, the most telling indication that “ghosts” were not able to haunt the polling booths.

Undeclared emergency indeed.

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Assembly polls: Attack on a three-year-old proves West Bengal is no longer a functional democracy