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Poll panel decides on talks with govt

- Civic election dates to be announced following discussions with state, EC tells court
SR Upadhyay

Calcutta, Aug. 7: The state election commission today told Calcutta High Court that it would announce the dates for polls to 17 civic bodies following consultations with 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, state election commissioner S.R. Upadhyay had said he was not in the post with the “temperament to fight” and spoken on 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 friction” 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 of our decision.”

The judge adjourned the case till September 10.

Neither Upadhyay nor Pande was available for comment today.

Although Behani, who has 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” by the new top brass.

“The U-turn by the commission was dramatic but predictable. The general idea is not to get into a confrontation with the government. There is unlikely to be any more case by the commission against the government in the near future,” said a senior commission official.

On her last day in office, Pande had expressed hope that the commission would “stay the course on all that has been initiated”.

Pande had been a thorn in the government’s side and taken it to the Supreme Court last year over the conduct of panchayat elections.

The former additional chief secretary, known in bureaucratic circles for being a stickler for rules, disallowed the government from holding the rural polls before the end of the five-year term in 2013.

Pande also made the state arrange for central forces — for the first time in the country for rural polls.

According to Nabanna sources, the government “heaved a sigh of relief” at Pande’s retirement.

“The commission under Pande had caused the government much embarrassment. Things are expected to change drastically under Upadhyay now,” an official said.

Before Upadhyay, retired officers from the IAS had occupied the post of the state election commissioner, who oversees rural and civic polls. Former chief secretaries Tarun Dutta, Anish Majumdar and Ashok Gupta and additional chief secretaries Ajoy Sinha and Pande had held the post.

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