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Poll panel says what govt wanted to hear

Calcutta, Aug. 7: The state election commission today told Calcutta High Court it would announce the dates of polls to 17 civic bodies after consulting the government, softening the stance taken by former panel chief Mira Pande who had alleged foot-dragging over the process.

The commission under Pande had filed a case in the high court in June, alleging that the state government was deliberately delaying the process of holding the polls to the 17 civic bodies, whose terms ended that month. The panel had requested the court to direct the government to conduct the elections at the earliest.

Last month, the state government appointed a retired WBCS officer as the state poll panel head after the term of Pande, a former IAS officer, ended.

On his first day in office on July 22, new state election commissioner S.R. Upadhyay had said he had not assumed charge with the “temperament to fight” and spoken of the importance of co-operation with the government. Nabanna officials had said Upadhyay had been handpicked by the government because the administration did not want “frequent frictions” with the election commission.

Poll panel lawyer L.C. Behani today told Justice Debashish Kargupta of Calcutta High Court that the commission had decided to consult the state government and announce the dates for the elections to the 17 civic bodies.

Justice Soumitra Pal, who had initially heard the case filed by the panel, had ordered the government to announce the dates by August 31 so that the elections could be conducted by September 11.

Today, instead of the state, Behani told Justice Kargupta, who is now hearing the case, that the commission would like to initiate a dialogue with the government on the election dates and inform the court about its decision on September 10.

When Justice Kargupta asked Behani if the commission was withdrawing the case, the lawyer said: “The case can go on, but we are informing you about our decision.”

The judge adjourned the case till September 10.

Neither Upadhyay nor Pande, who had expressed hope that the commission will “stay the course on all that has been initiated”, was available for comment today.

Although Behani, who had fought the government tooth and nail in the high court as the head of the commission’s legal team, declined comment, sources in the poll panel said he was “left with no other option” under the changed circumstances.

“The U-turn by the commission was dramatic but predictable. The idea is not to get into a confrontation with the government. The commission is unlikely to file cases against the government in the near future,” a senior poll panel official said.

The election commission under Pande had locked horns with the state government over various issues. Last year, the commission had moved the Supreme Court over primacy in conducting the panchayat polls. Under orders from the apex court, central forces had been deployed for the first time in panchayat polls in Bengal.

The then additional chief secretary had disallowed the government from holding the rural polls before the end of the five-year term in 2013.

According to Nabanna sources, the government “heaved a sigh of relief” after Pande’s term ended. “The commission under Pande had caused the government much embarrassment. Things are expected to change under Upadhyay,” an official said.

Upadhyay is the first officer from the WBCS cadre to be appointed the state election commissioner. Before him, only IAS officers had been made state election commissioner. Pande’s predecessors in the poll panel were former chief secretaries Tarun Dutta, Anish Majumdar and Ashok Gupta and additional chief secretary Ajoy Sinha.

The post of secretary to the commission has also gone to a WBCS officer, Osman Gani.