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FEB 26, 2006
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Business Today,  February 12, 2006
Under Pressure This Time
K.J. Rao, the Election Commission observer who cleaned up the Bihar election process, has now set his eyes on West Bengal. Can he ensure a "fair" poll? Will the Left Front win in spite of that? And how will the results impact national politics?
CM Bhattacharjee: Facing a tough match

Assembly elections in West Bengal are still a few months away. And most people expect the ruling Left Front to return to power with a thumping majority. Yawn! So why is Business Today, a business magazine, carrying this report? Because of a new twist in this tale. It's still only a small twist; but it has the potential to snowball into something massive; and if it does, it can have far-reaching consequences for the country's economy and politics (see The Scenarios).

The "twist" answers to the name of K.J. Rao. He's an observer appointed by the Election Commission (EC)-the 63-year-old Rao joined the EC as an assistant in 1966 and retired as Secretary in 2002; he was sent as observer for the us presidential election in 2002 and the Afghanistan election in 2004-to oversee the election process in West Bengal. Rao's claim to fame: he's a maverick who ensured free and fair polls in Bihar in 2005. The expectation: if he can do the same in Bengal, the Reds might find it difficult to continue their lease on Writers' Buildings.

One of the reasons why the left front experiment has worked so well in West Bengal is that the CPI(M) has always won an absolute majority on its own, or has fallen just short of the halfway mark (as in 2001, when it won 143 seats in the 294-member House). This meant its smaller partners always had to toe Big Brother's line. How will it go this time?

Result: The Left Front wins overwhelming majority. The CPI(M) wins a majority on its own or falls just short of the halfway mark
State-level implication: No change in status quo; Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee gets a free hand to pursue reforms
National implication: The Left Front may become more vocal and assertive; but bowing to governance imperatives in West Bengal, may allow some incremental reforms in return for concessions on foreign policy; no threat to the UPA government

Result: The Left Front wins working majority. The CPI(M) falls well short of the halfway mark.
State-level implication: Smaller partners like the RSP, the Forward Bloc and the CPI flex their muscles; Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee finds his wings clipped; hardliners gain the upper hand
National implication: The Left Front becomes more aggressive as it tries to regain lost ground; reforms grind to a halt; relations between the UPA and the Left nosedives; The UPA government has a 50:50 chance of survival

Result: The Left Front loses. The CPI(M) falls way short of the halfway mark
State-level implication: Political uncertainty in West Bengal, since the Congress, the Trinamul Congress and the BJP cannot obviously come together to form the government. The Left Front storm troopers hold the state to ransom; incipient economic revival in state regresses
National implication: UPA strategists may go in for snap polls to cash in on the disarray in the Opposition and Left ranks. Result is anyone's guess

The opening chapters of the story have gone according to script. Rao and his team of 18 observers landed in Kolkata on January 8; their brief: check out the process of revising electoral rolls in West Bengal. At Phulia in Nadia district, 45 km from Kolkata, Rao asked some local people who surrounded his car if they faced problems casting their votes. The response was a loud "yes". Had they come across bogus voters (even voters from across the border) standing in queue outside polling booths? The chorus was again in the affirmative. Satisfied, Rao got off his car for a house-to-house survey. By the end of the day, he had struck off dozens of false voters from the electoral rolls. Elsewhere, in 18 other districts, the other EC observers were doing more of the same. By the end of their weeklong tour of the state, they found that the Left Front government had issued 8.15 crore ration cards. Nothing wrong with that, except that West Bengal has a total population of only 8.02 crore! "There's a huge problem here. There are some districts which require more time and attention. We will have to look more deeply into the matter. And if the EC so desires, I'm ready to oversee the elections in West Bengal. But that's a call that EC will have to take," says Rao. And just before leaving for Delhi, he tells mediapersons: "We will consider bringing in presiding officers from outside the state and post polling officers outside booths for stringent checking of photo identity cards and other documents." That he meant business became evident when the EC showcaused 25 state government officials for negligence in dealing with electoral roll-related applications and complaints. The Congress, the Trinamul Congress and the BJP are delighted. "The EC observers have only vindicated what we have been saying for years. We hope the EC actually does bring in presiding officers and other officials from outside as that's the only way of ensuring free and fair elections here," says Pankaj Banerjee, leader of the Trinamul Congress legislative party.

Officially, the Left Front has decided to brazen it out. Its Chairman Biman Bose, who is also a member of the CPI(M) politburo, admits the existence of bogus voters, but blames the Opposition for this. "There are many false voters bogus electoral id cards and fake ration cards in the state. The EC should take steps to find out who is behind these; this is tarnishing the image of the state."

That looks fishy: Rao on the prowl

Brave words; but off the record, the comrades admit to being rattled. Some Left Front leaders, including CPI(M) state secretary and politburo member Anil Biswas, even question the practice of observers going about their jobs with photographers in tow. "If they think they can get away with it, they are wrong. Their highhandedness may lead to a mass upsurge," he says.

Prima facie, the Left has good reasons to be worried. In the 2001 assembly polls, a particular booth in Goghat constituency in South 24 Parganas, which is considered "sensitive", recorded a total of 936 votes -all cast in favour of the CPI(M). In Purshura in Hooghly, another booth recorded 1,105 votes in favour of the CPI(M), and only one for the Trinamul. And in Garbeta in Midnapore, yet another sensitive constituency, the Trinamul received less than 10 votes in 13 booths, while the CPI(M) got between 509 and 875 in each of them. There are thousands of such examples through the state. Statistically, such a distribution of votes looks questionable. But CPI(M) leaders are quick to defend their party. "Unlike other parties, our cadres begin preparing for the next elections within 24 hours of results being announced (see How The Left Front Poll Machinery Works). That is why we continue to win election after election," says Bose.

The elections are due in May; it's already February; and the electoral rolls have to be published by the middle of this month. Is there enough time to revise and update the rolls within this time? "The updation of rolls is a continuous process," says an EC official. "If we feel the need to include the names of genuine voters and delete those of false voters, we'll continue to do so even after February."

West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee senior general secretary and spokesman Manas Bhunia submitted a memorandum to the Election Commission a few days ago containing a step-by-step account of how the Left Front allegedly rigs elections. Excerpts:
  • The Local Committees or LCs (the lowest organisational rung in the Left Front) review booth-by-booth voting patterns in their areas; swings towards and away from every party are noted and analysed
  • LCs keep tabs on voters and draw up lists of people who change residences or die; they also maintain lists of committed voters, floating voters and new voters for every party
  • Government officials (lower and mid-level), who all belong to the Left Front-controlled Co-ordination Committee of State Government Employees then prepare/amend the electoral rolls; people who are likely to vote against the Left Front are deliberately left out; names of fictitious voters or illegal immigrants are inserted into the rolls
  • Police officials are transferred just before the announcement of polling dates; "friendly" ones are posted in sensitive districts
  • Government staff is allocated election duties in such a way that proven party members are given charge of sensitive booths or those where the opposition is expected to do well
  • Muscle power and a pliant police administration are used to grab the best spots for graffiti, banners, festoons, etc.; this creates an overwhelming aura and impresses floating voters
  • Cadres sometimes create panic situations in some areas so that large sections of the electorate do not come out to vote. These votes are then cast for the party candidate
  • Trained party cadres jam booths, holding up and delaying the polling process for people standing in queue; this deters non-committed voters who leave after a while without casting their votes; party cadres then cast these votes in favour of their candidates

Aveek Dutta, a senior member of the CPI(M) State Committee, dismisses these allegations as "bogus". "The party never interferes in the election process. We win because we keep ourselves engaged in political campaigns that highlight people's causes. No other party does this," he says.

This debate has been carrying on in West Bengal for almost 30 years. The EC has now been called in as judge. How it tackles the situation will make for interesting viewing.

The EC's promise of a "free and fair" election apart, two other factors are expected to play a crucial role in the forthcoming polls. This is the first time the Left will face off against the Congress in a state even while it props up a Congress-led government in Delhi. These elections will also test the electoral viability of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's pro-reforms, pro-industry stance for the first time.

Will the Left Front again trump its opponents and win a renewed mandate? Or will Rao and his team succeed in untying this Gordian knot? That's impossible to predict. But it's fair to say that the focus this time will be on the EC, its man on the spot, and his mission. What he does over the next three months could have far reaching consequences for the country.




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