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India's Election Commission has ordered a stop to campaigning in Kolkata, a day before its scheduled deadline, following violence between supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party and opposition protesters.
Clashes erupted in the West Bengal state capital on Tuesday at a rally by BJP President Amit Shah between his supporters and demonstrators believed to be from the Trinamool Congress, which holds power in the eastern state.
Several people were injured, vehicles set on fire and a statue of renowned Bengali reformer Iswarchandra Vidyasagar vandalised, prompting the electoral commission to cut short campaigning in an unprecedented move.
“This is the first time such a measure has been taken using the EC's constitutional powers. But this is not going to be the last," Deputy Election Commissioner Chandra Bhushan Kumar told RFI.
Kumar also expressed "deep anguish" over the vandalising of the bust and said he was hopeful the culprits would be arrested soon
The EC also ordered the removal of two senior police officers for not taking action.
Battle for West Bengal
The eastern state has emerged as a crucial electoral battleground in the ongoing parliamentary elections where Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP is desperately trying to make inroads to offset likely losses in the Hindi heartland and retain power.
For years, the BJP has tried to make headway in the state which, was ruled by Marxists for 34 years before the arrival of current chief minister, Mamata Banerjee of the ruling Trinamool Congress.
The "stormy petrel of West Bengal politics", as she is often described, is credited with singlehandedly ending Marxist rule – and now the 64-year-old chief minister has decided to take Modi and his BJP head on.
She lashed out at the EC and the BJP for cutting short campaign duration in the state.
Banerjee – also an outside chance for Prime Minister, in the event that a nationwide coalition of regional parties wins enough seats – alleged there was no law and order problem in West Bengal, except for allowing Amit Shah's rallies to go ahead.
'Breakdown of constitutional machinery'
"What kind of democracy is this? The Supreme Court is not listening to us. The Election Commission is listening to BJP. Where will we go? Where will our people go?" she queried at a hastily convened press conference.
The principal Opposition Congress party called the EC's move "an unpardonable betrayal of the constitution" and alleged that the commission had "become a pawn in the hands of the Modi-Shah duo".
“This order was aimed solely at giving a free pass to the PM's rallies," said Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, commenting that the MCC – the Model Code of Conduct – had become "Modi Code of Misconduct".
The ruling BJP welcomed the move. "A free campaign is not possible and therefore the campaign has to be cut short," said finance minister Arun Jaitley. "This is a classic case of breakdown of the constitutional machinery."
Voting in India's elections started on 11 April and is divided into seven phases to reduce the burden on election staff and police.
In the last leg of the drawn out poll, voting is to be held in 10 constituencies on 19 May in West Bengal which sends 42 lawmakers to the Parliament.