Amid sporadic incidents of violence, EVM glitches and allegations and counter-allegations of electoral malpractices, Cooch Behar and Alipurduar constituencies in West Bengal reported nearly 70 per cent polling till afternoon on Thursday as the Lok Sabha polls kicked off. Of the over 34 lakh voters in these constituencies, an average 69.94 per cent had polled till 3 p.m., an Election Commission official told IANS in Kolkata.
While the polling percentage for Alipurduar was 71.44, Cooch Behar recorded 68.44, he said. Long queues could be seen in front of the booths in both the constituencies from well before polling began at 7 a.m.
Members of the Toto tribe, which live in isolation in the small enclave of Totopara in Madarihat of Alipurduar district, came out in large numbers in the polling booths to exercise their rights. Around 1,600 Totos are registered as voters in the booth.
Enthusiasm also brimmed over in the erstwhile 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in Cooch Behar district, which saw a large turnout at the polling booths. The dwellers were voting for the first time to elect the government at the centre.
Voting process in a number of polling stations in Cooch Behar was temporarily disrupted as EVM machines stopped working. Trinamool Congress district chief and North Bengal Affairs Minister Rabindranath Ghosh alleged a conspiracy.
“How can so many EVMs malfunction? We smell a conspiracy. I have tried to complain to the Election Commission but they are not reachable. So I have informed the District Magistrate,” he said.
Bulk of the allegations and incidents of violence were reported from Cooch Behar, particularly under Dinhata assembly segment.
A television grab showed a couple of injured Trinamool booth level workers in Dinhata, and the ruling party blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the violence.
At Gorchura Primary School booth in Dinhata, there was commotion after BJP candidate Nisith Pramanik reached the polling premises on receiving complaints that outsiders were trying to rig the elections.
Trinamool and BJP workers clashed at Dinhata’s Rosmonda primary school booth, following allegations that the Trinamool workers were beating and driving away voters.
In Mathabahnaga of Cooch Behar, alleged Trinamool-backed miscreants heckled Forward Bloc candidate Gobinda Roy and smashed the windshield of his vehicle after he arrived at the booth following allegations of false voting.
At Sitalkuchi of Cooch Behar district, some women voters complained that they were being prevented from exercising their rights by Trinamool-backed miscreants, with the police remaining silent spectators. The Trinamool, however, denied the allegation.
Ghosh also accused the central forces of interfering in the voting process by entering the polling premises even though they were not authorised.
“They even stopped somebody like me. It seems they have a design. In the border areas also, the BSF is interfering in the booths and disturbing the voters. BJP has indulged in violence in a number of areas,” he alleged.
On the other hand, BJP’s Pramanik demanded a repoll in all the booths which were not manned by the central forces and alleged that the state police were not cooperating with the voters.
In Kolkata, Additional Chief Electoral Officer Sanjay Basu said polling has been peaceful so far.
“There were traces of unrest in Cooch Behar’s Dinhata. Police rushed to the spot but now voting is going on peacefully,” he said.
He said EVMs were immediately replaced wherever the machines malfunctioned.
A total of 34,54,274 voters, including 16,81,051 women and 29 registered in the ‘other’ category, are eligible to exercise their franchise across 3,844 polling stations to decide the fate of 18 candidates.
Organised tea garden workers and their dependents form a sizeable chunk of voters in Cooch Behar, which is reserved for Scheduled Castes and about 50 per cent of the electorate in Alipurduar, which is reserved for Scheduled Tribes. Both seats were won by the Trinamool in 2014.
The Trinamool, BJP, Congress and Left Front are in the fray in both the seats. Among the Left’s partners, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) is contesting Alipurduar, and the Forward Bloc is fighting in Cooch Behar.
A total of 83 companies of paramilitary forces have been deployed in the two districts along with state police.
Polls to West Bengal’s remaining 40 seats will be held in all the stages of the Lok Sabha polls – on April 18, April 23, April 29, May 6, May 12 and May 19. Votes will be counted on May 23.