The BJP Monday announced that it would not hold any meeting with more than 500 people, including those addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Left, Congress and Trinamool already had announced that they would not hold big rallies in West Bengal, amidst rising coronavirus cases.
However, the decision at the end of campaigning for the sixth phase, came after the BJP was criticised for going ahead with big rallies and roadshows, even as the state is seeing its highest-ever cases. And, the Election Commission had also recommended cutting down numbers.
Announcing the decision to hold meetings attended by a maximum of 500 people, the BJP said it was essential to break the chain of the coronavirus infection, and that it would leverage its “massive digital footprint” to take across the message of its top leaders to voters.
The announcement came hours after Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad mocked Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for cancelling his rallies in West Bengal, and said the poll process was a “constitutional obligation”. “(Rahul’s decision) is an alibi as the captain found his ship sinking,” he said at a press conference in Kolkata.
Top BJP leaders held over 12 rallies and public meetings Monday across Bengal. At his Asansol meeting on Saturday, the PM had marvelled at the size of the crowd gathered to hear him.
Reacting to the BJP announcement, TMC MP Sougata Roy said it was too little, too late. “We have been saying for a long time that holds the remaining three phases on a single day. We have already curtailed our election schedule… It is too little, too late. And the Covid-19 has already peaked, and so many people have died.”
The Left also had criticised the BJP for taking so long to take this decision. “We were the first party to announce that we will not hold any big election rallies in the state. Today the BJP has done the same. This is nothing but an attempt to gain sympathy from the people,” said senior CPM leader Mohammad Salim.
Defending the decision, BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said, “The party feels it is now dangerous to hold big rallies. It is prioritising people’s health over politics.”
Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee announced late on Sunday that her party would organise only small meetings in Kolkata and keep speeches short in the campaign for the remaining phases. Meanwhile, the TMC said Banerjee’s speeches would now be no more than 20-odd minutes long instead of the usual 50 minutes to one hour so that people don’t have to stay long.
In the announcement Monday, the BJP said its public meetings would be held in open places, with Covid-19 guidelines. But it also asserted that it is necessary that the “constitutional and democratic process” that is on in Bengal is completed.
At his press conference, Prasad said, “Elections are a constitutional obligation undertaken by the EC. We will follow all the guidelines given by the EC. In Bihar, too, elections were held amid Covid.”
The BJP said it would distribute six crore masks and sanitisers in West Bengal. And the country would overcome Covid like it had done with other big challenges under Modi, it added.
Addressing a series of rallies Monday, Banerjee again urged the EC to curtail the schedule for the remaining three phases of polling to a single day or at the most two days.
EC urged to protect public health
“With folded hands, I request the Election Commission to hold the next three phases on a single day. If not one day, conduct it in two days. Please don’t make your decision based on what the BJP says. Please ensure that you protect public health.”
She urged all to cast their vote, including Covid patients who are not ailing. “Go to the booth after 6 pm and cast your vote. Otherwise, the BJP will strike your name off the NRC and CAA.”
Congress said the EC should just defer the last three phases. In a letter to the EC, Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the panel should take a call on what was more important — the lives of people or polls to choose their representatives. “I plead that election if at all to be done, should be after Ramzan is over and the present pandemic is diluted,” he said.
The next three voting days in Bengal are April 22, 26 and 29. Now the Covid cases in West Bengal is more than 6 lakh, with the state seeing successive highest spikes daily. There were 28 deaths on Sunday, pushing the toll to 10,568.