It’s time to end the standoff in West Bengal between the State government and the State Election Commission over the holding of rural elections in 17 districts. The two sides have come as far as agreeing on new dates and on holding the exercise in three phases on July 2, 6 and 9 — following an order of the Calcutta High Court. But there is no consensus on the district-wise grouping for each phase. While the government insists on polls in nine districts on the first day, four on the second and another four on the final day, the Commission wants fewer districts to vote on the first day. Holding elections in the nine districts simultaneously will mean bunching about 36,000 booths out of the total of more than 57,000. The Commission’s concerns over security appear to be justified as a majority of these are categorised as highly sensitive or sensitive. The security formula it had proposed — and that a single-judge bench of the Calcutta High Court upheld — required the deployment of two jawans for each booth, irrespective of the level of sensitivity. A Division Bench amended the formula based on the level of sensitivity. But even here, the court’s new prescription makes it necessary for the government to source tens of thousands of personnel over and above those it has on call. It is unclear whether the State would be able to sustain its strident stand against requisitioning Central forces.
The State government’s stand is unreasonable. Why would any government seem worried about requirements of security deployment set down by the body which is mandated with the task of holding free and fair elections? Fears over the presence of Central forces leading to an unequal game are more imaginary than real. It is seldom that a State government has chosen to lock horns in this manner with a State Election Commission. In this instance, Section 42 of the West Bengal Panchayat Election Act, 2003 that says the State government shall, in consultation with the Election Commission, set dates for panchayat elections, has proved to be the bone on which this contention has swung. The dispute has centred on what constitutes consultations: discussion or consensus. The State government’s argument seemed to be that consultations need not necessarily lead to a consensus. Yet, the fact is that Section 42 was drafted in light of Article 243K of the Constitution, which spells out the role of the State Election Commission in panchayat elections. The government ought to note this observation by the Division Bench: “It is not a judgment on the law and order situation in the State. It relates to the perception of freedom and fairness during the elections so that a citizen can come out and cast his vote.”