The irony of elections to local bodies in West Bengal is this: The state was a pioneer in local self-government, yet, over decades, the legitimacy of the polls to panchayats has been undermined by the spectre of violence and intimidation by the party in office in Kolkata. This year, too, over 34 per cent of the seats had only Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidates standing unopposed, and state opposition parties — the BJP and CPM — moved court against the alleged excesses of the state government. By staying the Kolkata High Court’s order that accepted nominations via email and asking the State Election Commission (SEC) not to declare the results for the seats where the TMC was unopposed, the Supreme Court has walked a fine line with finesse.
On the one hand, the apex court has recognised that elections to local bodies are a state subject and, constitutionally, their free and fair conduct falls under the ambit of the SEC. While appealing the high court’s decision, the SEC had said that allowing e-nominations would cause “irreparable loss and injury”, implying as it does a failure of the SEC and state government’s machinery to prevent the intimidation of opposition candidates. While upholding the reputation of the SEC, the three-judge bench led by the Chief Justice of India also directed it to ensure that “the election which is scheduled for 14.5.2018 is held in absolute fairness, keeping in view the concept of purity of an election”. But the Court has not ignored that the local elections seem to have become a display of muscle power and subversion by the ruling party. There have been fewer murders in the run-up to the polls this year compared to 2013 — a small consolation, given the fact that the opposition has retreated from the public space. The scale of intimidation can be seen in the fact that the CPM and BJP have come together in certain pockets of the state to stand up to the might of the TMC, when there is little ideological or political affinity between the parties. By barring the declaration in the contentious, uncontested seats — the CPM claims that 800 of its candidates were prevented from filing their nomination — the SC’s order must also serve as a wake-up call.
It is clear that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the TMC, rather than change the political dynamic set in place in West Bengal first by the Congress and later by the CPM, has only adopted it. The SC order is both a warning and an opportunity for the state government and the SEC. These elections will be clearly watched, and the administration must not allow subversion of the democratic process. The Court has placed its trust on the SEC to ensure a peaceful transition of office for representatives closest to the people. It must live up to the faith placed in it.