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EC to send stern message on ‘bias’ Glare on CEO and 3 districts

Calcutta, April 3: The full bench of the Election Commission is expected to send a “stern” message to chief electoral officer Sunil Kumar Gupta and the administration of at least three Bengal districts against whom allegations of bias and inaction have been made.

During a visit to Calcutta this weekend, the full bench of chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath and election commissioners H.S. Brahma and Nasim Zaidi is likely to meet Gupta and senior officials of the three districts, including Birbhum and North 24-Parganas. The bench is likely to meet Gupta and batches of officials from the three districts separately on Saturday night, hours after they arrive in the city.

The bench is going to meet Gupta and the authorities of all 19 districts on Sunday anyway for a law-and-order review and election-preparedness assessment.

Nirvachan Sadan sources said the bench’s meetings with Gupta and the authorities of the three districts would be held before Sunday’s session because of an increasing number of complaints against them for “not taking right and timely steps” to ensure free, fair and peaceful polls. “The Opposition has been complaining against Gupta’s office and the authorities of the three districts,” a source said this afternoon.

Besides the three districts, the bench is also expected to separately “brief” top officials of districts such as Murshidabad, Nadia, Burdwan and Bankura, against whom similar complaints have been lodged.

The EC has appointed sports secretary Rajesh Pandey as Bengal’s additional chief electoral officer, the first time in recent memory such a special officer has been appointed in the run-up to an election in the state.

The EC sources ruled out the possibility of removing Bengal chief electoral officer (CEO) Gupta as the election process is underway. He is, however, likely to be told to toe the commission’s line and stop “playing it safe with the ruling establishment”.

Till recently, the CEO’s office had allegedly been forwarding all complaints from the Opposition to Nirvachan Sadan despite having the authority to act on most of them, delaying redress.

Deputy election commissioner Vinod Zutshi had warned the CEO’s office on March 25 and poll panel principal secretary K. Ajay Kumar had sent a letter expressing dismay at the move to forward all complaints to Nirvachan Sadan.

The Opposition has alleged that between March 5, when the model code became effective, and March 25, Gupta’s office had not initiated action on over 100 complaints against the Trinamul Congress.

CPM state secretariat member Rabin Deb, who liaisons with the poll panel on behalf of the Left Front, has alleged that Gupta, whose term as chief electoral officer will end soon after the poll process is over, has deliberately been shifting the onus of taking action on to Nirvachan Sadan.

Asked why the CEO’s office was facing charges of bias, Deb said: “There is clearly an effort to avoid taking decisions that go against Trinamul. Whether this is with an eye on a plum posting in the state government after the elections is not something we are in a position to talk about.”

The CEO’s office has been accused of dragging its feet on alleged violations of the model code of conduct by Trinamul leaders such as Birbhum unit chief Anubrata Mondal.

“The CEO did not take any action in the aftermath of recent incidents of assault on poll officials in Habra and Howrah. This has not gone down well with the EC,” a source in Gupta’s office said.

Gupta and other officials in his office have been citing the rulebook and procedures that must be followed, but the top brass of the EC is unwilling to buy the argument, the source added.

District officials have complained about delay in providing training material to election personnel. They have also claimed that Gupta is inaccessible. “Mails sent to him for instructions remain unanswered for days,” a district magistrate said.