Deferring to any authority seldom comes easy to some elected leaders. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s attack on the Election Commission for ordering the transfer of eight civil servants has the potential to create a constitutional crisis. It also represents an unhealthy defiance of a constitutional body vested with the authority to oversee all aspects of a general election. There ought to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Commission has substantial plenary powers to maintain the purity of the election process at all times under Article 324 of the Constitution, which vests the superintendence, direction and control of elections in the institution. It is now fairly well-established that the Commission exercises administrative and disciplinary jurisdiction over officers deployed for election duty. It had strong reasons to order the transfer of these officers — a District Magistrate, two Additional District Magistrates and five Superintendents of Police. There were complaints against most of these officials that they were biased towards candidates of the ruling Trinamool Congress. Such transfer orders do not mean that these charges have been proved, only that the EC is interested in removing the apprehension of bias. Ms. Banerjee’s refusal to comply with the order goes against the current trend of the executive not interfering in the EC’s views on matters such as the likelihood of bias on the part of officials. By talking of a political conspiracy against her and warning that she would not take responsibility for any chaos that may be caused by the EC’s order, Ms. Banerjee has exacerbated the situation.
It is possible to contend that the EC could have restricted itself to the transfer of the officials and asked the State government to suggest replacements. Ms. Banerjee seems perturbed by the fact that fresh appointments had been decided by the Commission on its own without consulting her government. The EC, indeed, ought to exercise its authority to ensure fair elections but without giving the impression that it is riding roughshod over elected governments. The Commission has in the past asked the State government concerned to forward a panel of names from which it could choose a replacement. It is in the fitness of things that a compromise has now been arrived at by which the transfers stand as ordered by the EC, but the officials replacing those shifted out are chosen by the State government. In the midst of a multi-phase election, those vested with constitutional functions should work in harmony. A conflict between the Election Commission and the State government will place senior bureaucrats in the awkward predicament of having to serve two masters at the same time.