Calcutta, March 22: The Mamata Banerjee government today notified two-phase panchayat polls next month, raising the possibility of a stalemate and throwing up a question if the state election commission will accept the schedule or mount a legal challenge.
The state election commission, whose head Mira Pande has been the target of attacks from the government, has been recommending a three-phase election partly policed by central paramilitary forces. The commission is said to be not averse to a two-phase schedule if two armed personnel are posted in each booth and the poll break-up is not skewed.
Instead, the government this evening announced panchayat elections in as many as 14 districts at one go on April 26 and in three Congress-dominated districts on April 30.
According to the rulebook, the state election commission — mandated by the Constitution to conduct the polls — will have to issue a matching notification for the poll process to begin.
The commission is expected to take a decision on Monday. A stalemate can be avoided if both sides reach a consensus on the number of armed guards and the break-up of the districts on each polling day.
State panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee read out the government notification after a 15-minute meeting with law minister Chandrima Bhattacharya and chief secretary Sanjay Mitra.
Mukherjee said the roster was drawn up to ensure “free, fair and democratic” conduct of the rural polls. “We have discussed the polls in detail among ourselves and decided on this roster,” said Mukherjee.
The state poll commission had earlier refused to accept a similar schedule suggested by the government and sent a message that an uneven distribution of districts was a political decision it did not want to be a party to.
If the commission sticks to its stand — “the probability of the commission accepting today’s proposal is almost zero,” said a senior official — a legal battle over the rural polls is likely.
“This is a stalemate-like situationů. As there is no possibility of the commission conceding, only legal arbitration can solve the problem,” said a government officer.
“If the commission does not come out with its notification, it will be apparent that there is a difference of opinionů. That will open the possibility of a PIL by anybody.”
Mukherjee claimed that the government had reached its decision in “consultation” with the poll panel, in accordance with the provisions of the West Bengal Panchayat Elections Act, 2003.
But commission secretary Tapas Ray, minutes after the government officially communicated its decision, said the poll panel would meet on Monday to take a call on its next course of action. “We have just been informed. We will take our decision at Monday’s meeting,” Ray said tonight.
A source in the government said that the commission was “most likely” to send a letter requesting the government to review its decision as it had already expressed its reservations on a similar roster.
“Once the two sides express their stands openly, both — the government and the commission — are free to seek legal resolution,” said an officer.
According to the government notification, elections will take place on April 26 in Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, South Dinajpur, Nadia, Burdwan, Bankura, Birbhum, Purulia, East and West Midnapore, North and South 24-Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly. On April 30, Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur will go to the polls.
The government decision surprised a section of officials at Writers’. Bimal Chatterjee, state advocate-general, had apparently given his opinion that in case of a legal challenge, the verdict was likely to go in favour of the commission.
The unfamiliar stand-off prompted another officer to wonder aloud: “A legal tangle will surely push back the election dates. Is the government in favour of deferring the elections?”
Government officials said the decision to issue the notification “unilaterally, browbeating the commission”, had been taken in the afternoon at a meeting convened by the chief minister at her Assembly chamber.
“At the meeting, Madam (Mamata) said enough had been done to try and get the commission on the same page with the government, but time was running out. She was also very displeased with the commission expressing concern at the transfer of 19 BDOs on Tuesday, which the chief minister had ordered,” an official said.
A Writers’ source said the decision to overrule the poll panel was not expected because both the government and the commission had been “sincerely” trying to put their “differences” aside over the past few weeks.
“The only problem area that remained was the question of adequate armed forces,” said the source. The government had proposed deploying one armed guard and the panel two in each booth.
But the commission today communicated its “strong objection” to a “contention” made in a sentence in a report in The Telegraph on Thursday. The sentence had read: “Commission officials said they were holding ‘informal’ discussions with the state.” The commission also denied that any “panel official” had said anything about holding the panchayat polls in two phases on April 24 and 27.
Asked if central forces would be sought as the commission had proposed, Mukherjee confined himself to saying “armed police personnel” would be deployed in every booth. “The number of personnel to be deployed will be ascertained, booth by booth, by the home department (under the chief minister),” he said.
There have also been questions about completing all the formalities before the scheduled dates.