Bengal Election: Election Commission directed to strictly follow Covid-19 guidelines in West Bengal

New Delhi: The Chief Election Commissioner of West Bengal on Thursday directed officials and all political parties to ensure strict compliance of the Covid-19 guidelines before the fifth phase of voting.

The 5th phase of voting in West Bengal is to be held on Saturday. The officials were asked to ensure that voters maintain a distance of at least 2 feet at polling stations in view of deteriorating Covid-19 situation.

The campaigning for the fifth phase of the West Bengal assembly elections ended on Wednesday. In this phase, elections are to be held in 45 seats on 17 April. The Election Commission has extended the period to stop campaigning from 48 to 72 hours in the wake of the Cooch Behar killings in the fourth phase.

A total of 1.13 crore voters are eligible to cast their votes on Saturday to decide the fate of 342 candidates, including Siliguri Mayor and Left Front leader Ashok Bhattacharya, Minister of State Bratya Basu and BJP’s Samik Bhattacharya. Polling will be held in 16 assembly seats of North 24 Parganas from 7 am to 6.30 pm at 15,789 polling stations, out of which eight will be in Purba Bardhaman and Nadia, seven in Jalpaiguri, five in Darjeeling and one in Kalimpong district.

Amid increasing cases of violence, the poll body also stressed the need to strictly enforce section 144 in the next phase of voting. The authorities decided that the area would be immediately closed in case of any untoward incident outside Section 144 on Saturday. The Election Commission also directed the state police to lathi-charge people if a situation goes out of control or a crowd appears around polling stations.

Sources indicated that the poll body was looking at the possibility of merging the last three phases – 6,7 and 8..

The poll body has increased the number of election observers from 55 to 66 for the next phase of voting and has given them the right to take a quick decision if the situation goes out of control. Supervisors will be on duty from 5 am. Warning has been issued by the top EC officials to ensure peaceful voting. In the case of Sitalkuchi-like situation, CAPF can open fire but keeping in mind the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

In the wake of the Cooch Behar killings, in which four people were killed in the CISF firing and one person was shot dead by unknown persons outside a booth in Sitalakuchi. The Election Commission has decided to deploy at least 853 companies of central forces to ensure free and fair elections. BJP star campaigners including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, party chief JP Nadda and actor Mithun Chakraborty had addressed several rallies in the region, attacking the TMC on corruption charges.

On the other hand, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew and Diamond Harbor MP Abhishek Banerjee attacked the Center over the fuel price hike. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also addressed rallies in the state on Saturday.

The BJP had won more than TMC assembly seats in the region in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The TMC won 32 seats in the 2016 assembly elections, the Left-Congress alliance won 10 seats, while the BJP vacated one seat.

Voting for 294 seats in the eight-phase assembly elections began on March 27, with the counting of votes to be held on May 2.

(With agency inputs)