The resignation of Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat on grounds that he could not get elected to the State Assembly within the six month deadline has put the spotlight on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and pending by-polls to certain Assembly seats in the State.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee faces a similar situation, having won the 2021 West Bengal Assembly polls with a massive mandate for the third time but losing the Nandigram Assembly with a narrow margin of 1956 votes.
Ms Banerjee was sworn in as the Chief Minister for the third consecutive time on May 5. She was hoping to get elected from Bhabanipur Assembly seat, her home constituency. To facilitate the by-poll, MLA and Minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay resigned from the seat on May 21. Byelections to seven Assembly seats including Bhabanipur are due in the State — Shamsherganj and Suti in Murshidabad, where contesting candidates died before the polls could be held, Santipur and Dinhata where the elected BJP MPs (Jagannath Sarkar and Nisith Pramanik) did not take oath as MLAs and Khardah and Gosaba where successful candidates died after the polls were held.
Ms. Banerjee has on several occasions in the past few days demanded that the Election Commission announce dates for the bypolls to these seats. She also took a swipe at the ECI, saying that maybe the constitutional body is waiting for the Prime Minister’s nod. “I will appeal the Prime Minister to allow the by polls to be held in West Bengal,” she had said with a touch of sarcasm.
Sources in the ECI, however, said the matter of holding by-polls to the vacant Assembly seats across the country had not been decided yet and that the COVID-19 situation would be assessed first.
The Chief Minister has also argued that the COVID situation has improved since the eight phase Assembly polls and there is no hindrance for holding the byelections on these seats. Ms. Banerjee had even suggested that the campaign period for by polls be brought down to seven days.
That the events in Uttarakhand will have a ripple effect in West Bengal became evident when hours after Mr Rawat resigned, Trinamool Congress leader Sukhendu Sekhar Roy cited an instance on how it was not necessary for a Chief Minister to contest and win Assembly polls. Mr. Roy told journalists that in 1972 , Chief Minister of West Bengal Siddhartha Shankar Ray did not contest Assembly polls and got elected within six months of the Assembly polls from a constituency in Malda. Mr Roy gave similar arguments like the Chief Minister for holding by-polls while emphasising that the COVID situation has vastly improved in the State.
On the other hand, the Chief Minister has ruled out holding the civic polls in the State which have been pending for over a year.
Top officials of the West Bengal government said the ECI wants to hold elections for two Rajya Sabha seats vacated by Dinesh Trivedi and Manas Ranjan Bhunia and has written to the concerned officials in this regard. Elections to Rajya Sabha require only MLAs to cast their vote. The State government, however, is insisting that Assembly by-polls should be the priority.
“The development in Uttarakhand is certainly matter of concern for the ruling Trinamool Congress. But it will be difficult for ECI not to hold by polls in West Bengal. The Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress will be constantly putting pressure of ECI on this issue,” Biswanath Chakraborty, Professor of Political Science at Rabindra Bharati University said.
Prof. Chakraborty pointed out that only two months have passed after the polls and there is still a window of four months for the CM to get elected to Assembly.
Two other options
The Chief Minister has also filed an election petition alleging irregularities in the counting process in Nandigram Assembly polls. Ms Banerjee has filed another petition demanding recusal of the Judge Kausik Chanda for alleged BJP links. The Judge has reserved on order on the recusal petition.
Another option is the setting of West Bengal Legislative Council (Vidhan Parishad) which was promised before the polls and has been approved by the State Cabinet. Like the election petition, setting up the Upper House of the State Legislature and nominating the Chief Minister is time consuming. It also requires Centre’s assent, which may not be forthcoming, some political observers say.