Two days before the fifth phase of the eight-phased West Bengal Assembly election, the Election Commission dismissed speculation that the last three phases could be clubbed in view of the COVID-19 surge in the country.
Hours after the EC's statement, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee appealed to the poll panel to conduct the remaining phases in "one go".
Since Thursday morning, there has been speculation in the media that the last three phases of the Assembly elections " scheduled for 22, 26, and 29 April " could be clubbed into a single phase.
"(There is) no such plan of clubbing phases," an EC spokesperson clarified.
There are reports that some political parties may raise the issue at an all-party meeting called by the Chief Electoral Officer of West Bengal on Friday, PTI reported. The meeting has been called to ensure that COVID-19 guidelines issued by the EC are adhered to by political leaders during campaigning.
India registered a total of 2,00,739 new COVID-19 cases in a span of 24 hours till 8 am on Thursday.
In view of the rising cases, Banerjee tweeted that the ruling TMC had opposed the prolonged eight-phase poll schedule.
The TMC supremo, in a tweet, said that such a move should be taken in view of public interest.
Arrangements for the fifth phase of polls, scheduled for Saturday, are already nearing completion, an election official was quoted as saying by PTI, even as several social media users held debates on whether the poll panel should at least conduct the next three phases of Bengal elections on a single day.
Mamata Banerjee holds roadshow in Kolkata ahead of 5th phase
Banerjee on Thursday held a roadshow in the state capital, as she sought to bolster the ruling TMC's campaign. She also wished people peace and prosperity on the occasion of the Bengali new year.
Accompanied by Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan, Banerjee was seen greeting the crowd with security personnel pushing her wheelchair.
TMC supremo led the 4-kilometre roadshow from Alochhaya cinema hall in the Beleghata area of the city to Bowbazar and waved at enthusiastic people who gathered along the road.
Thousands of party supporters took part in the rally and shouted slogans: "Didi, you go ahead, we are with you", "Down with rioter BJP", and "khela habe".
She was also accompanied by TMC candidate from Belaghata Paresh Paul and party's nominee from Chowrangee seat Nayna Bandyopadhyay.
Addressing a gathering after the hour-long march, Banerjee made a strong pitch in favour of the TMC.
Additionally, Bachchan said, "We do not want paribarton (change) in Bengal. Please re-elect Didi and help her carry on the development work to take the state to new heights."
The Samajwadi Party MP, who has been campaigning for TMC candidates and taking part in roadshows for over a week, also greeted people on the occasion of Bengali New year.
"Khela habe. Didi is playing the game even with her injured leg," Bachchan, who shares a rapport with the TMC chief for years and had earlier attended the inauguration programmes of the Kolkata International Film Festival, said.
FIR against Banerjee over Cooch Behar deaths
An FIR has been lodged against Banerjee at a police station in Cooch Behar, alleging that she instigated voters to gherao Central forces and that, in turn, led to the incident of firing in Sitalkuchi and the subsequent death of four people.
Siddique Ali Mia, the zilla president of BJP's minority cell in Cooch Behar, cited the TMC supremo's comments during a rally in Banerswar area as he filed a complaint on Wednesday claiming that her address provoked people to attack CISF personnel during the fourth phase of state elections.
He attached a video clip of Banerjee's speech in his complaint at Mathabhanga police station. Locals, after being provoked by such provocative statements of Mamata Banerjee, tried to snatch fire arms of the deployed paramilitary forces, Mia alleged.
"The said villagers including women launched attack upon the paramilitary forces with the intention of causing bodily injury, knowing it to be likely to cause death of the deployed paramilitary forces," he wrote in the FIR, a copy of which is with the PTI.
The BJP leader, when contacted, said he would launch a massive protest demanding the chief minister's arrest, if the police "sit idle" on the FIR in the next few days.
"She is solely responsible for the death of those four people. She is answerable to all the voters of our district," Mia stated.
At least four people died outside a polling booth in the Sitalkuchi Assembly constituency on 10 April when CISF personnel opened fire in "self defence" allegedly after coming under attack from locals.
The Election Commission had suspended the voting exercise at the booth following the incident.
In its statement, the EC said, "The joint report of the two special observers has been received ... wherein they interalia stated that recourse to open fire by the CISF personnel became absolutely necessary in order to save the lives of the voters lined up at the polling booth, those of other polling personnel and their own lives as the mob had attempted snatching their weapons."
The poll panel had also banned political leaders from entering the district for three days.
Banerjee met the family members of those killed in the firing on Wednesday.
With inputs from PTI