In a setback to the Mamata Banerjee government, the Calcutta High Court on Friday directed that panchayat polls in 17 districts be held in three phases with the government fully compensating the shortfall in security forces to the satisfaction of the State Election Commission.
Justice Biswanath Somadder rejected the government’s arguments on all the contentious issues in its writ petition and directed that it inform the Commission of deployment of security forces and poll observers by Saturday.
However, describing the ruling as “unrealistic,” Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee said the order would be challenged before a Division Bench by Monday.
For her part, West Bengal Election Commissioner Mira Pande said the panel “is happy that its stand has been vindicated.” Asked about the government’s plan to move a Division Bench, she said: “I cannot comment on what the State government will do; we will follow whatever the court has directed us to do.
The ruling said, “The government should ensure that adequate armed police personnel are made available for deployment to the satisfaction of the Commission from the date of nomination itself.”
While senior barrister Samaraditya Pal led counsel for the Commission, Advocate General Bimal Chatterjee represented the West Bengal government.
Justice Somadder said the Commission would determine district-wise grouping and actual dates of polling, and inform the government “imediately after” receiving the names of observers and details of deployment of security forces.
Pointing out that there was an “absolute necessity” to hold the elections before the term of rural bodies expired in June, he said, “An extraordinary situation has arisen which requires to be dealt with in an extraordinary manner.”
It was an “absolute non-negotiable obligation” on the part of the government to provide logistical and adequate financial resources for conduct of the polls. It might impose additional taxes or create a separate budgetary head for holding the polls, said the judge.
Referring to the four “outstanding issues” on which the Commission had approached the court, Justice Somadder pointed out that there was no “effective or meaningful consultative discussion process between the government and the Commission before issuing a notification for polls.”
The court said the Commission would issue directives to “all concerned including recognised political parties and candidates to refrain from [referring to] observations made in the judgment as part of their campaign.”
The Commission approached the court after the government had issued a unilateral notification for holding the elections in two phases in the last week of April.
Opposition slams move to challenge verdict
Even as major Opposition parties in the State welcomed the judgment, they criticised the State government’s decision to challenge the ruling.
Leaders of the Left Front, the Congress and the BJP said the State government’s move had a distinct political purpose — to defer the panchayat elections.
This had been the ruling party’s ploy even before the matter was taken to court, given the uncertainty of its prospects in the polls, they said.
The recent chit fund scam and the massive protests that erupted over it had only strengthened the Trinamool Congress’ determination to face humiliation in the event of the rural polls being held, the Opposition claimed.
Biman Bose, chairperson, State Left Front Committee, said it had been close to two years and the State government was yet to learn how to govern. “The State government is intentionally delaying the polls,” he added.
“We still hope that the State government will accept the verdict issued by the High Court. If it does not abide by the verdict and tries to create unnecessary complications the people of the State will never accept it,” State Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya said.
BJP State president Rahul Sinha said: “We have been saying from the start that the Trinamool is scared of facing the elections. After the chit fund scam coming to light, it realises all the more that it does not stand a chance in the polls.”