West Bengal

Panchayat polls: Supreme Court steps in

Print edition : July 26, 2013

Mira Pande, West Bengal Election Commissioner. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

THE prolonged and bitter deadlock between the West Bengal government and the State Election Commission (SEC) over the holding of panchayat elections was finally resolved in the Supreme Court on June 28. A vacation Bench of Justices A.K. Patnaik and Ranjan Gogoi passed an order, on a Special Leave Petition filed by the SEC, rescheduling the elections to a five-phase one from July 11 to 25, instead of the three-phase one scheduled to commence on July 2. The court, however, made it clear that “nominations, scrutiny, printing of ballot papers and declaration of results [for the uncontested seats] may not be reopened”. A total of 6,274 seats have already been won unopposed.

On the contentious issue of the deployment of security personnel, the court directed the SEC and the State government to “sort it out”, and said “the force deployment has to be done by the West Bengal government and the shortfall would be made good by the Centre”. While the SEC submitted that around 50,000 security personnel would be required for the first two phases, 60,000 for the next two, and 37,000 for the final phase, the State government said it could only provide 35,000 personnel. The Bench accordingly directed the Centre to provide 15,000 additional forces for the first two phases, 25,000 for the next two, and 2,000 for the last one.

Mira Pande, State Election Commissioner, expressed her satisfaction with the order: “It is a very clear verdict and I am very happy with the order. This is what we wanted.” Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was displeased: “Since it is a court order, I will have to reluctantly abide by it. I did not want the elections in the monsoon and during Ramzan.”

The SEC and the Trinamool Congress government had been at loggerheads for over nine months over the holding of the elections. Matters came to a head when the SEC challenged, in the Calcutta High Court, the State government’s unilateral announcement on March 22 that the elections would be held in two phases in April. At the core of the dispute was the question whether it was the State government or the SEC that had the final say in the conducting of the elections. The High Court ruling on May 14—that the elections be held in three phases from July 2 and the entire process be completed by July 15—did not satisfy the SEC’s demand for security personnel. By the time the SEC moved the Supreme Court, the elections had been notified, adding to the confusion, which the apex court order sorted out.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay