The Calcutta High Court Division Bench of Justice Biswanath Somadder and Justice Arindam Mukherjee reprimanded the state election commission in strong words, though the court stated that it would not interfere with the poll scheduled. However, the court’s decision may not necessarily mean the end of uncertainty, as a bench headed by chief justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya will hear a separate petition on May 8 on the alleged inadequacy of security for the election. There the petition by Congress has alleged inadequate security and sought quashing of the state election commission’s notification to hold the polls in a single phase on May 14.
“Keeping all the above factors in mind and based on a broad conspectus of the facts of the present case, we refrain from interfering with the order impugned only for such reasons as stated earlier. It is expected that the State Election Commission shall redeem itself upon taking note of the observations made herein before as a wake-up call,” the bench stated. The court order is in possession with The Indian Express. “….However, in the facts of the present case, we find that the State Election Commission – ever since issuance of the initial notification…. with regard to holding of the 2018 Panchayat elections, has acted in such a manner that eyebrows have been raised and accusatory fingers have been pointed against it time and again. Its neutrality has been seriously questioned. It has floundered while performing its Constitutional obligation to uphold the democratic principles in a fair and transparent manner leading to a spate of litigations ever since the election process was set to motion..” the court observed.
Speaking on the court’s observation, political parties appreciated the fact the court took to task the SEC. Opposition parties are also looking at Court on Tuesday when another bench, this time of the chief justice will hear a petition regarding security arrangements. “The division bench has observed that the action of the poll panel is not above question and that it should be a wakeup call to the SEC. Our appeal was to point out to the court that SEC is not working in the manner it should according to our constution. It was not a question of winning and losing,” said Congress advocate Riju Ghoshal, when asked about court stating that it would not interfere with the poll schedule.
Calling the elections a farce, state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, “We want to plead with the courts whether it is possible to start the election process afresh.” BJP’s Bengal unit general secretary Pratap Banerjee said, “We are ready for any schedule— single, two-day or three-day polls. But the process has to be fair and peaceful”.
As things stand now, the SEC will have to convince the bench of the chief justice that they have adequate security to ensure fair and peaceful elections. Opposition leaders have argued that the poll panel faces the challenge of manning polling booths with the limited number of armed policemen that the state government has.
The ruling Trinamool Congress has won uncontested 34.2% of the 58,692 seats in the three tiers — zilla parishad, panchayat samiti and gram panchayat. The panchayat polls have been mired in controversy after violence was unleashed during filing of nominations.The election commission then did a flip-flop by extending the nomination dates, and then withdrawing it. A single bench headed by Justice Subrata Talukdar which pulled up the poll panel asking it to announce extension of nomination. The SEC then changed the poll schedule to a single day on May 14, from the earlier three phase dates of May 1, 3 and 5.
Incidentally, in 2013, the SEC moved court against the state government. Following a Supreme Court order the votes were held in five phases and with central forces ensuring security.