KOLKATA/NEW DELHI: In a blow to
Congress’s campaign, the Election Commission on Monday banned West Bengal chief minister
from electioneering for 24 hours, holding that she had appealed for votes along communal lines as well as said in a speech in Cooch Behar that central forces personnel would try to intimidate voters and exhorted women to ‘gherao’ them.
Rejecting Banerjee’s explanation that she had not made any communal remarks at Tarkeshwar in Hooghly on April 3 and also her claims that ‘gherao’ was a democratic and legal form of protest, the EC in its order said
had, while justifying her remarks, left out key parts from her speech “perhaps due to selective amnesia”.
The EC action drew an immediate response from Banerjee and Trinamool, which dubbed the order “undemocratic and unconstitutional” and called the EC extremely compromised”. “I will sit on dharna at Gandhi Murti, Kolkata, from 12 noon,” Banerjee tweeted.
The order significantly reduces Banerjee’s campaign time for the fifth phase of the Bengal polling process. The poll panel, in an order last Saturday, said the “silence period” for this phase would start 72 hours before the end of voting (instead of the usual 48 hours). Campaigning, therefore, will stop at 6.30 pm on Wednesday, the one-day ban on Banerjee gets over at 8 pm on Tuesday.
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The EC's remarks are another instance of the commission's strongly-worded responses to the Trinamool leader's allegations against the poll watchdog.
The 24-hour ban on campaigning by the CM might be unprecedented with Chittatosh Mookerjee, who was chief justice of Bombay High Court, saying, “I have never come across anything similar post-Independence in Bengal.”
The EC said Banerjee had violated provisions of the model code of conduct, Representation of the People Act, 1951, and the Indian Penal Code by making “highly insinuating and provocative remarks laden with serious potential of breakdown of law and order and thereby adversely affecting the election process”.
The EC has in the past meted out harsher punishments to errant politicians. In 1994, then CEC T N Seshan had asked then PM P V Narasimha Rao to remove ministers Sitaram Kesri and Kalpanath Rai for allegedly influencing voters with undue promises; in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the EC had barred BJP leader Amit Shah and SP leader Azam Khan from campaigning in UP over communal remarks, but later withdrew the ban; in the 2019 polls, the EC put a 72-hour ban on UP CM
, 48-hour on Mayawati, and a 72-hour ban on Azam Khan, besides barring Sadhvi Pragya from campaigning for 72 hours for her ‘hate speech’.
Condemning her statements as “portent with serious law and order problems across the state(s)”, the EC issued a “stern” warning to Banerjee and advised her to desist from making such public utterances while the model code was in force.
The order prompted Trinamool to call for mass protests on Tuesday. Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien posted, “April 12: Black Day in our democracy. EC stands for Extremely Compromised. Always knew we were winning Bengal.” Former Union minister
tweeted that Trinamool “always doubted the EC’s impartiality”. “But today it has shed whatever pretence it had. Now it is clear that the EC is acting at the behest of Modi/Shah and under their direct order. Every institution of democracy is compromised today,” he added.
Sources at EC said given the violations by Banerjee, the 24-hour campaign ban was “still mild” as two-star campaigners from other parties, A Raja from DMK and Himanta Biswa Sharma from BJP, were recently slapped with 48-hour bans. “But then, she is the party president and the ban makes it clear that party presidents too are not above the law and EC’s rules,” said one of them.
Incidentally, the EC is also said to have taken serious note of Banerjee’s reference to the death of four civilians in police firing at a polling station in Sitalkuchi assembly constituency of Cooch Behar on April 10 as “genocide”. This, when reports of the special observers as well as the Cooch Behar SP’s account made it clear that the firing was in “self-defence” against a violent mob that heckled the polling staff and tried to snatch arms of the security personnel.
The EC had on April 7 issued a notice to Banerjee over a speech at Tarakeshwar, Hooghly, where she had allegedly appealed to minority voters not to split their vote among different political parties. On April 8, it issued another notice to Banerjee over her “attempts” to “berate and vilify” central forces by “falsely” suggesting that they may intimidate electors to vote for a particular party and even inciting women voters during a recent speech to 'gherao' central forces personnel.
Monday’s order will force Banerjee to make another choice on Wednesday — she can either go to Sitalkuchi (where four villagers died in
firing last Saturday) or campaign for the 45 seats that go to vote on Saturday. The EC, in another order last weekend, had barred political “leaders” from entering Cooch Behar district (including Sitalkuchi) for 72 hours (from Saturday evening to Tuesday evening).