Calcutta, March 12: The Bengal government has signalled its intent to notify two-phase panchayat polls in an apparent attempt to persuade the state election commission to drop its insistence on polls in three legs.
If the government’s blow-hot-blow-cold attempts do not yield a breakthrough, it runs the risk of wading into a grey area and getting sucked into a legal battle, officials and lawyers suggested today.
State panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee today said the state government was set to hold the rural polls in two phases and issue a notification once the chief minister returned from north Bengal on Thursday.
The state election commission has already rejected the state’s plan to hold polls in two phases. The complexion of the divergence had changed after Trinamul leader Mukul Roy accused state election commissioner Mira Pande, a widely respected official, of working on the behalf of the CPM.
Asked whether the state can declare poll dates unilaterally, minister Mukherjee said: “The law is self-explanatory. The state government’s decision on the election dates is final. Otherwise, the state election commission would have announced the election dates. There would have been no need for an exchange of letters.”
Mukherjee added that the Election Commission of India does not consult either the state governments or the Centre for announcing election dates since it has the power to do so. But not the state election commission.
“We will write to the state election commission about the dates and then wait for its reply. If it doesn’t answer, we will issue the election notification. The state election commission will be bound to follow us,” Mukherjee said.
But several senior state government officials and lawyers demurred.
“Section 42 of the West Bengal Panchayat Election Act, 2003, clearly states that the state government can notify the date or dates of rural polls but it has to be done in consultation with the state election commission. If the state can declare the dates unilaterally, why would the statute say that it should consult the state election commission?” asked a senior official at Writers’ Buildings.
Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya, a senior advocate of Calcutta High Court, said: “The dates should be announced mutually. The state election commission has been given the supreme authority by the Constitution to conduct the rural polls and that’s why its recommendations cannot be ignored.”
An election commission official said there has to be agreement between the state government and the commission before the election dates were announced.
“This is the norm,” the official said. “In our state, such a situation has never cropped up before, where the government and the election commission have held divergent views.”
Officials said that the state election commission, even though a constitutional body, does not have the power to announce polls dates unilaterally because it had to function under the rules specified in the West Bengal Panchayat Election Act, 2003.
But Section 43 of the act also says that a matching notification from the state election commission is required for the formal announcement of poll dates.
The act does not specify what would happen if the state poll commission does not agree with the dates announced by the state government and withholds the issuance of the matching notification.
“The act is silent on this. This is a grey area. May be taking the issue to the court is the only option for the commission, if it refuses to accept the dates notified by the state,” said an official of the commission. However, he added that such an option was not being considered by the state poll body.
Senior advocate Bhattacharyya said: “The state election commission is the sole body conducting the polls and the entire responsibility rests on it. So, it will only be natural for courts to be sympathetic towards it and the verdict would weigh in its favour.”
Another lawyer, Geetanath Ganguly, also felt that the state could face “trouble” if the commission moved court. “Since this issue of the state government and the state poll body holding divergent views on the poll dates is a grey area, it would lead to a lot of unpleasantness, unless the two work out a convergence of views,” Ganguly said.
Officials of the state poll panel said they were still hopeful that the government would declare the poll dates after consulting the commission and agreeing to mutually acceptable dates.
Senior bureaucrats have confirmed that the state government is desperately trying to find a solution.
“Despite the announcements by our ministers and senior Trinamul leaders, the government wants to tide over the poll date issue amicably,” an official said. “We shall keep pressing ahead with the process of convincing the state poll body to agree to our views.”
The state is set to send another letter to the commission, proposing two-phase polls under which the entire north Bengal and Murshidabad will go to polls in one leg and the rest of the districts in the other.