WB elections not to be clubbed say officials, after ruling TMC isolated at all-party meeting

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(Eds:Changes in intro, adding death of candidate) Kolkata, Apr 16 (PTI) The Election Commission stands unmoved in its stand on not clubbing the remaining phases of elections in West Bengal, as the ruling TMC which raised the demand remained isolated at an all-party meeting on the issue on Friday.

There will be no rescheduling of the remaining phases of polling in West Bengal, a senior official in the state CEO's office said after the meeting.

Meanwhile, RSP's Jangipur candidate Pradip Kumar Nandi died of COVID-19 at a hospital in Berhampore, the second candidate in West Bengal to fall victim to the ongoing pandemic.

Political parties were asked by CEO Ariz Aftab to strictly follow the COVID-19 protocol of wearing masks and maintain physical distancing while campaigning for the remaining phases.

A second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is currently sweeping the state forcing the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to seek clubbing of the last three phases of polling. In the first 15 days of this month, West Bengal registered 49,970 new cases of the contagion and 151 COVID-19 fatalities.

'This meeting was not called to discuss rescheduling, though we had a request from one political party on that.

(However) no decision was taken to reschedule the remaining three phases of polling,' the official told PTI.

The all-party meeting also discussed the need for strict enforcement of social distancing at polling stations.

'Wearing a mask, keeping adequate sanitizers have been made mandatory at all political rallies. Any violations of the protocol shall be sternly dealt with. Criminal action will be taken as per the legal framework,' he said.

The organisers of the public meetings and rallies will be responsible for providing the masks and sanitisers to all attending them at their cost, the official added.

The CEO will be sending a gist of the meeting to the Election Commission of India (ECI) in New Delhi.

The meeting was called by the CEO following a Calcutta High Court directive to ensure strict implementation of COVID-related protocols amid political campaigns for the remaining phases of polling here.

The ruling Trinamool Congress had earlier on Friday at the meeting reiterated the chief ministers plea on clubbing of the last three phases of assembly elections after the fifth round is held on Saturday considering the alarming COVID situation in the state.

TMC leader Partha Chatterjee said that in order to save lives and control spread of the pandemic, the last three phases may be clubbed, while ensuring democratic rights are upheld.' The BJP however sought continuation of the eight-phase election plan. 'A level playing field has to be maintained...We have advised the Election Commission to balance the need for a robust democratic culture with safety norms, BJP leader Swapan Dasgupta said after the meeting.

The Left Front too wanted to continue with the eight- phase polling schedule. 'Our point is that the schedule should be maintained,' CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP Bikash Bhattacharya said.

The fifth leg of the eight-phase assembly elections for 294-member Bengal house are scheduled on Saturday and the next three rounds will be held on April 22, 26 and 29.

A total of 114 seats are scheduled to go for polls in the last three phases.

At least five candidates of different parties contesting the ongoing assembly election in Bengal have tested positive for COVID-19.

State ADG (Law and Order) Jag Mohan and state health secretary NS Nigam were also present at the meeting held on Friday.

The Calcutta High Court on Tuesday had directed that in view of resurgence in COVID-19 cases, all health-related guidelines be strictly maintained during campaigning by political parties for the West Bengal assembly elections. SCH AMR PNT JRC JRC