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Special observer on table

- Poll panel considers ‘stern message’ for Bengal

Calcutta, April 12: The Election Commission is set to appoint a “special state observer” with jurisdiction over all the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal following a raft of complaints against poll officials and the office of the chief electoral officer, according to sources.

Commission sources in Delhi said a senior IAS officer — of secretary rank or above — from another state was likely to be sent to Bengal next week.

They said the commission, by appointing such an observer who would enjoy powers nearly equal to that of chief electoral officer (CEO) Sunil Kumar Gupta, intended to send a “stern message” to election officials and Bengal’s ruling establishment, besides trying to ensure free and fair polls.

“The decision is likely to be notified early next week. We have actively considered the situation in Bengal and inferred that, given where things now stand, it needs a special state observer,” a commission source said this evening.

The special observer will directly co-ordinate with Nirvachan Sadan, the commission’s headquarters in Delhi, visit troubled areas, meet officials against whom complaints of bias or inaction have been lodged and ensure prompt execution of the commission’s directives.

“It is a stern message to the state government and the CEO’s office. Had the commission been satisfied with the way things are in Bengal, there would have been no need to send such an officer. Only in extremely special cases are such officers appointed,” the source said.

CEO Gupta couldn’t be reached. Sources in his office said they were not in a position to comment now.

A senior state official said if the commission did appoint such a special observer, it would be an “embarrassment” for the administration.

The only time such an observer had been appointed for Bengal was in 2004, when the Left was in power. The move had followed complaints from the Opposition, which included the now ruling Trinamul, against the state’s election machinery and then CEO Basudeb Banerjee, now the home secretary.

“That was a difficult election,” recalled Afzal Amanullah, the Bihar government secretary who had then flown from Patna to take up his role as special observer.

“I had toured the state extensively. There was a distinct fear of the ruling establishment. From what I now hear, things haven’t changed much despite the change of guard,” Amanullah, now secretary to the Union ministry of parliamentary affairs, told The Telegraph from Delhi.

Commission sources said the 1979-batch officer, in his dispatches during and after the 2004 polls, had written about “an institutionalised rape of a democratic process” in Bengal.

Amanullah, who had in 2002 played a similar role in the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, said he had been “aghast” to see that the police and the bureaucracy in Bengal were “actively politicised”.

“I think, sooner or later, officials and the political bosses in Bengal have to both realise that this game has to be played according to the commission’s rules,” Amanullah said.

The poll panel, which has yet to decide on the course of action against chief minister Mamata Banerjee for her “inflammatory” speeches against it, has issued instructions to all CEOs for prompt intervention and follow-up action in case of any violations of the model code.

In an order late last night, the panel instructed the CEOs to video-record all campaign activities and closely monitor rallies.