Calcutta, March 16: State election commissioner Mira Pande’s proposal to deploy central forces in the panchayat elections drew blank looks and an eerie silence from district magistrates and superintendents of police today.
Pande met the administrative heads of all the districts today to assess their preparedness. The meeting came against the backdrop of an accusation by Trinamul MP Mukul Roy that Pande was working at the behest of the CPM, although the government has sent conciliatory signals since then.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee later met a section of the same officials. Mamata, according to government sources, iterated that she was not in favour of deployment of central forces during the panchayat polls, something that Pande has been stressing on during her discussions with the state government.
Chief secretary Sanjay Mitra said the meeting with Mamata was a “routine” exercise and that the chief minister had convened it to discuss “development issues” and law and order before Holi.
A source present at one of the two meetings the poll commission had with two separate batches of officers this afternoon told The Telegraph that when the retired IAS officer raised the question of use of central forces, the following sequence was played out.
“Are the existing forces sufficient? Don’t you need paramilitary forces?” the source quoted Pande as asking the officers.
No one spoke.
Pande tried again to elicit some response from the officers but her attempts to drew a blank.
“Why are you all silent? Cheye to dekhun… paaben ki na porer kotha (at least ask, whether you’ll get it is something you can worry about later),” she said.
No one said anything.
“The way the DMs and the SPs reacted after the SEC proposed the use of central forces, it is clear that the officers are under tremendous pressure to toe the line of the state government which doesn’t want central forces for rural polls,” said a state government official.
The government has been resisting the proposal to use central forces on the assumption that it would be construed as an adverse reflection on law and order in the state.
According to norms, the state election commission cannot seek forces from the central government unless the proposal is ratified by the state government. The decision of the state government is contingent upon the feedback from the DMs and SPs.
“A very interesting thing has happened this time…. The commission has formed its opinion on use of central forces from the feedback it is getting from DMs and SPs…. The same set of officers are giving reports to the government, which has a different view,” said a senior government official.
Sources in the commission said that though all the SPs were asked to submit details of force arrangements for the elections, only the SPs of Malda, South Dinajpur, North Dinajpur, Birbhum and Burdwan did so.
An officer who did not submit the arrangement report said: “We are yet to receive any directives on the scale and the force arrangements from the police directorate.”
An apparently unconvinced commission has set Monday as the deadline for all the districts to submit the election arrangement plans.
The reply was in itself an admission of how the police and administration have their “hands tied” and “lips sealed”, said an officer. “We are a state functionary. We cannot function against the will and wish of the state,” the IAS officer told this newspaper on condition of anonymity.
Pande declined comment. Tapas Roy, the secretary to the state election commission, said the officials were asked to work out the force requirement within the next few days and to report on the vulnerability of polling stations.
Pande sought suggestions from the district chiefs on how they are going to tackle political complaints. “How are you going to tackle complaints from political leaders who allege that they are not being allowed to file nominations?” an officer quoted her asking the officers.
Intensifying patrolling, area domination, route march, flag march — some general answers flew in.
“Which force are you going to use?”
“Straco, Rapid action force, force from the police stations…,” again came the general answer.
Pande asked if the existing forces were sufficient, before proposing deployment of central forces.
Faced with the silence over central forces, Pande was quoted as saying: “Bidhansabha nirbachan nirbachan ar Panchayat nirbachan nirbachan noy? Amar toh mone hoy eta aro kotheen… (Assembly election is a serious election and panchayat election is not? In my opinion, this is tougher)”.
No one said anything.