Chief minister Mamata Banerjee announces the climbdown at the...
||...Durgapur Press Club on Tuesday evening. Pictures by Arup Sarkar
Calcutta, April 8: Mamata Banerjee has blinked — delivering an eye-popping moment in Bengal politics.
The chief minister this evening agreed to accept the Election Commission’s directive to shift eight officials, halting a slippery slide towards a constitutional crisis.
But Mamata will formally “record” her objections to the manner in which the commission has wielded the broom, adding to the scorn she has heaped on the commission in the past 24 hours.
However, marking a rare instance in a tumultuous career, Mamata appeared to have paid heed to gingerly political counsel and hapless administrative recommendation to accept the constitutional body’s directive.
“Out of respect for the commission, we are accepting the decision,” the chief minister told a hurriedly called media conference in Durgapur around 8pm.
Sources in Trinamul said they could not remember another instance of an overnight climbdown by Mamata after raising the stakes high by publicly threatening to defy the commission’s order and daring it to arrest her.
The Election Commission had yesterday asked the government to transfer a district magistrate, two additional district magistrates and five superintendents of police. Seven had been ordered out of poll duty following charges of favouritism towards the ruling party.
For over 30 hours or so, the chief minister struck a defiant posture in public although aides summoned courage to gently remind her of the possible consequences.
“This time, she had no alternative as she realised that she could not win the battle with the EC,” said a senior Trinamul leader, referring to the sweeping powers that the Constitution has bestowed upon the panel to conduct polls.
The commission — some officials of which expressed confidence through the day that its decision would be accepted — stuck to its guns.
The state government had last evening sent a letter urging the panel to review its decision to replace the officers and seeking an explanation for the removal without consulting the state.
The letter alarmed senior officers in the state who realised that continued defiance would leave the commission with little option but to take exemplary measures to avoid a replay in other states.
The commission’s response in the afternoon — although it was a holiday at the Delhi headquarters because of Ram Navami — confirmed the officials’ fears.
“The commission asked the state government to implement the order dated April 7, 2014, forthwith and submit a compliance report by 10am, April 9, 2014,” commission director Dhirendra Ojha told The Telegraph, a couple of hours before Mamata’s media conference.
Contacted again after Mamata announced her decision, Ojha replied: “Let the commission receive the compliance report.”
The climbdown by the chief minister came as a relief for senior Trinamul leaders and her core team of officers who were trying to impress upon her that a standoff with the EC could result in the following possibilities:
The commission has powers to postpone elections, either in the entire state or in the districts from where officers have been removed.
The commission can move court. Of late, the highest judiciary has delivered landmark judgments to strengthen efforts to clean up the election process.
The commission had shown earlier that it could even push for President’s rule.
“She was a bit rattled with the possibility and so it was decided that the EC directive would be followed to avoid any confrontation,” said a source.
If the political aides separately conveyed to their leader more or less a uniform message for ceasefire, the chief secretary appeared to have played a decisive role in the evening.
Sources in Nabanna, the new secretariat, said a few sentences that chief secretary Sanjay Mitra had scribbled tilted the scales.
Soon after the commission sent Mitra a letter rejecting the plea to reconsider its directive, the chief secretary called up senior officials, including the home secretary and the director-general of police. Mitra left Nabanna around 6.30pm after sending a file to the chief minister’s office.
“The file contained the EC letter and a noting from the chief secretary. The chief secretary had written that the government should comply with the EC directive as the communication to convince the poll panel has failed,” said a senior official.
Mamata made her announcement only after working out what Trinamul sources described as an “honourable” exit strategy. In Durgapur, she said her government would register its displeasure and send another letter to the commission tomorrow.
“The EC has mentioned in its letter that there were no issues with the integrity and efficiency of the officers. We will send a letter tomorrow and ask the commission to explain on what basis did they remove the officers,” the chief minister said.
“The commission’s move is politically motivated and they are engaging in foul play,” she added.
A source in the commission had said yesterday the transfers were necessary to ensure Opposition parties had faith in the system.
Mamata said she would reinstate all the officers in the same posts after the elections were over. “Till then, I will keep them with me, giving them maximum possible honour,” she said.
Some officials felt that the chief minister was trying to send a message that she would stand by officers loyal to her.
Mamata also took care to give verbal certificates of appreciation to some of the officers whose removal has been ordered.
Sources said the commission would verify whether ground existed for action against Mamata for attacking the watchdog. The panel has already viewed the video recording of her speech in Hooghly yesterday and will acquire footage of the media conference at Durgapur this evening.