Ariz Aftab was the West Bengal Chief Electoral Officer when the panchayat elections in the state were conducted, rather, not allowed to be conducted in 2018.
New Delhi: The first phase of polling in West Bengal, which was marred by complaints of voter intimidation and booth capturing by goons of the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress, has also led to aspersions being cast on the office of the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of the state. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party (Marxists) have accused the CEO, Ariz Aftab, of posing hindrances to the free and fair conduct of elections, of refusing to allot adequate Central forces to the booths and of favouring Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in every way possible.
Mention must be made here that Ariz Aftab was the West Bengal CEO when the panchayat elections in the state were conducted, rather, not allowed to be conducted in 2018. Ariz Aftab is a 1991 batch IAS officer from West Bengal cadre. He was appointed as the West Bengal Chief Electoral Officer on 10 February 2017. He was Principal Secretary of the Mamata Banerjee government’s Self Help Group Department, before being appointed as the CEO. Election Commission of India selected his name from a panel of three names the Mamata Banerjee government sent to it. The other names were of IAS officers Barun Roy and Ravi Inder Singh. Last year’s controversial panchayat elections witnessed large scale violence, while 20,076 seats out of 58,692 went uncontested, with TMC being declared victorious even without a single vote being cast.
Currently, the situation is such that BJP’s Bengal leaders are refusing to deal with the CEO, Ariz Aftab and are instead talking to Vivek Dubey, the Central Police Observer, about their complaints regarding violations and violence.
Apart from this, there is widespread panic among voters spread across West Bengal. Voters with whom The Sunday Guardian spoke to in the last few days, alleged that paramilitary forces promised by the Election Commission had failed to make their presence felt on the ground. The Sunday Guardian spoke to a plethora of people from the rural and semi-urban areas of volatile districts such as Birbhum, Nadia, North 24 Parganas, Bankura and South 24 Parganas to learn that the Bengal unit of the EC had failed to instruct respective district administrations to deploy the paramilitary forces in sensitive areas. The forces were seen on the ground for the initial two-three days, but after that they have not been seen to conduct flag marches and area domination exercises. They are apparently in the barracks, with the district administrations yet to mobilise them.
There are anyway complaints that sufficient Central forces have not been allotted to the state for the conduct of elections.
‘CEO FAVOURING THE TMC’
Senior BJP leader and West Bengal state vice president Jayprakash Mazumdar alleged to The Sunday Guardian that “Some sections of the West Bengal CEO’s office are working in favour of the TMC. The TMC, before the elections were declared, strategically placed their yes-men in several sections of the CEO’s office so that this election could be managed by the TMC directly. This is clearly visible from the inaction of the Election Commission in Bengal over several senior TMC leaders openly violating the Model Code of Conduct. We have also apprised the Central Election Commission about how some police personnel are working in favour of the TMC government. The list of sensitive booths prepared by the district administration in the recently concluded elections in Cooch Behar was cooked up and this is going to happen all across the state in future phases.”
A delegation from the Bengal BJP’s state unit met the office of the Election Commission in Bengal on Friday and submitted a list of 296 booths from Cooch Behar where they felt that a re-election must be conducted.
“See, wherever state police officers were posted in booths, violence was reported. We have submitted a detailed report and have asked the Commission to view video footage of these booths and order a re-election.” Mazumdar added.
BJP is not alone in alleging bias on the part of the CEO. The CPM too has alleged that the CEO of West Bengal is acting at the “behest” of the ruling Trinamool Congress.
West Bengal CPM leader and spokesperson Shatarup Ghosh told The Sunday Guardian, “We can cite clear cases of violations of the Model Code Conduct by TMC leaders, but the state CEO has not taken any action against them. One of our candidates was attacked by a mob in Cooch Behar but no action was taken. Our candidate from Diamond Harbour was attacked. We registered a complaint but nothing happened. We had asked for the deployment of Central forces in all sensitive booths but even that was overlooked. What else can we say?”
Sources close to Mukul Roy, Bengal BJP’s election campaign committee chairperson, too accused the West Bengal CEO of being biased. According to them, a delegation led by Roy refused to give any sensitive information to the Special Police Observer Vivek Dubey in front of Ariz Aftab because “within two minutes the information will go to Mamata Banerjee”. They talked to Dubey in Ariz Aftab’s absence.
When this newspaper contacted Ariz Aftab over phone and asked him about the allegation that he was favouring the Trinamool Congress, he hung up the call. Neither did he answer further calls from this newspaper, nor did he respond to SMSes.
However, the TMC too has written to the Chief Election Commissioner that its officers in the state are acting on the directions of the BJP leaders.
On Wednesday, TMC MP and spokesperson Derek O’Brien in his letter to the CEC wrote, “It is clear that the EC has been complying with the directions of the BJP leaders. EC, being a constitutional body, should not bow down to the powers of the Central government and should not act as a mouthpiece of the BJP.”
He also alleged that the EC by becoming a party to such a conspiracy had “belittled” its Constitutional post.
Kolkata based sources in the Election Commission have told this newspaper that the Special Police Observer, Vivek Dubey has been summoned to New Delhi by the Chief Election Commission for a meeting. The CEC is also scheduled to speak with West Bengal CEO Ariz Aftab to discuss the allegations against him.
ON THE GROUND
Meanwhile, West Bengal’s Basirhat—which witnessed horrific riots in 2017, and has been highly polarised ever since then—has not seen any visible presence of paramilitary forces to instill confidence among the electorate in the area. Raja, 31 (name changed), while speaking to this newspaper from Basirhat, said that it being a border town, Basirhat has always been sensitive and the situation has degenerated post the communal riots.
“Despite it being a known that this area is so sensitive and is going to witness a tough fight between the BJP and the TMC, the paramilitary forces have not shown up yet. We have not seen any CRPF personnel in this area. However, Basirhat being a border town, there are BSF personnel, but they are not on election duty. There are also rumours among the people that they will not be allowed to vote freely as the TMC is going to use all its might to ensure that their candidate, Nusrat Jahan, wins from here,” Raja said.
“In such a situation, if the paramilitary forces don’t start making their presence felt and give confidence to the people, they will not be able to cast their votes freely. I doubt how fair this election is going to be,” Raja added.
The situation is similar in Birbhum, where TMC’s muscle power rules and its muscleman, Anubrata Mondal is the “last word” in the district. The absence of paramilitary forces here has made it much easier for the ruling party to flex its muscles. According to people who spoke to this newspaper, Birbhum’s rural areas are likely to witness a tough contest between the BJP’s Dudh Kumar Mondal and TMC’s Shatabdi Roy, an actress-turned-politician. But voters alleged that many residents have already received threats that if they do not vote for the TMC in the upcoming elections, they will have to face consequences once the election machinery leaves.
Rakesh Sarkar, 52 (name changed), who was hesitant to speak over telephone fearing his phone was being tapped, spoke to this newspaper on the mobile number used by one of his friends and only after getting an assurance that his name would be concealed. “The TMC has a lot of money and muscle power here. They can do whatever they want to. People are being identified and marked on the basis of whether they are attending BJP rallies or TMC rallies, and what flag they have outside their homes. If you don’t put up a TMC flag or if you are identified as a BJP supporter, 15-20 people will come at night and threaten you,” Sarkar said.
“If this continues, how can we vote freely? They are even saying they will be able to identify people who do not vote for TMC. And there is no Central force (paramilitary force) here, which is making things easier for them TMC,” Sarkar added.
It is pertinent to mention that Birbhum witnessed unprecedented violence during the panchayat elections in 2018 and locals alleged that the “civic police volunteers”—an unconstitutional force created by the TMC at the ground level—donned Bengal police attire and threatened people against voting for opposition parties and that the same is happening now.
The feedback from Krishnanagar Lok Sabha constituency in Nadia district was that there was not much to worry about because Krishnanagar was mostly a peaceful area. However, locals here too complained that the paramilitary forces were not to be seen anywhere.
However, for residents of Swarup Nagar in the Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency, which is in the North 24 Parganas district, the situation is very different. Swarup Nagar is located adjacent to the riot-hit Basirhat and is a communally sensitive area. Residents here fear that clashes could break out during the elections.
One resident, Khokan (name changed), told this newspaper over telephone, “There is a fear that outsiders are being brought here and some communal tension could be created before the polls. People are being openly threatened by the TMC cadre as the TMC district president (Jyotipriya Mullick) is very powerful. He is acting like a local warlord with little regard for the police. He is using all his might to curtail any dissent against the TMC. Also, from Swarup Nagar, there is no strong leader from the BJP and therefore people are afraid to openly talk about the BJP.”
Asked if there was any paramilitary force seen around in the area, he said, “No, I did not see any. I had heard that some had come here last month, but after that they did not come.”
However, Vivek Dubey, Special Police Observer for West Bengal elections, in a separate interview, told The Sunday Guardian that the police and paramilitary forces were doing their job diligently.