April 7: The Election Commission of India today directed the removal of seven officials from poll duty in Bengal and handpicked their replacements, prompting an enraged chief minister to threaten to defy the order.
“If you have the courage, arrest me. This is a conspiracy hatched by the ECI (the Election Commission), the Congress, the CPM and the BJP. The ECI is acting on their instructions to help them win. Showcause me or arrest me, I am not going to accept this. I challenge the EC,” Mamata Banerjee told a rally in Hooghly.
The Constitution empowers the commission to take the final decision — a power T.N. Seshan had used ruthlessly to clean up Indian elections in the mid-1990s.
If the chief minister sticks to her defiance, a constitutional crisis can set in although some officials suggested late tonight realisation could be sinking in that the government’s options are limited. In the worst-case scenario, the commission has powers to postpone elections.
But no one would commit how events will unfold tomorrow — the deadline set by the commission to implement its decision.
A common thread that ran through the allegations against the seven officials was “bias” towards the ruling party. The senior-most official affected by the order is the North 24-Parganas district magistrate.
The Telegraph had reported extensively on the allegations of favouritism and intimidation, including the alleged assault on a BDO who enforced the model code of conduct, and a cover-up attempt in the district.
This is the first time in recent memory in Bengal that an order to remove so many senior officials has been issued by the commission on the grounds of bias and inaction. There is also no precedence of a state government refusing to carry out such an order.
So stunned was the Bengal administration that no one was willing to guess till late in the evening when — or whether — the mandatory administrative orders will be issued to replace the officials.
Sources said the commission’s directive was forwarded to chief secretary Sanjay Mitra in the afternoon. At Nabanna, Mitra said he would not comment. Attempts to contact him on the phone in the evening proved futile.
Late tonight, other sources said the files for the removal and replacements had been kept ready in case Mamata changed her mind.
Some officers were on the verge of panic because the commission is empowered to act against any official who fails to implement its orders. Even the chief secretary, the head of the permanent government, is on deputation to the commission during polls.
“The chief minister is unhappy as the replacements were named without consulting the state government. The state may write to the commission, proposing alternative names,” said a government official. He felt that the government might say it has a better understanding of which officials were familiar with the respective districts.
The commission’s decision was announced by Bengal’s chief electoral officer Sunil Kumar Gupta in the afternoon, less than 24 hours after chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath had promised action.
“The decision has to be implemented by tomorrow. They (the seven officials) can be given non-election-related duties at the state government’s discretion,” Gupta said.
Mamata struck back from Hooghly: “I will not accept this. I will not remove any of these officers…. You can remove them. It is your responsibility.”
She told another meeting in Burdwan: “The EC is crossing the Lakshmanrekha. If they give directions on instructions from the BJP and the Congress, I am not going to listen to them. Ja khushi kore nik (They can do as they please).”
At the EC headquarters in New Delhi, officials pointed out that over the past month, over 150 officials had been shifted in five states. But no state government had railed against the watchdog.
“One of the key elements of ensuring fair play is to respond to grievances of Opposition parties — especially if they all harbour the same concerns,” an official said. “It doesn’t mean we distrust the state government.”
He added: “We hope what we’re hearing is bluster.”
Mamata launched a personal attack on the deputy election commissioner in charge of several states, including Bengal. “(Vinod) Zutshi is behind all this, non-bailable warrant was issued against him. He has taken a stay order from the Supreme Court. How can the EC give charge to a person accused of so many frauds?” she asked.
The same official had looked after the Assembly elections in Bengal in 2011.
She cited a political motive, too. “The transfers have been ordered to help Adhir (Chowdhury, the Congress state chief and candidate from Behrampore) rig the polls. Bharati (Ghosh, SP) was removed to help Manas (Bhuniya, the Congress nominee from Ghatal) rig the elections,” she said.