A day after extending the last date to file nominations for the panchayat elections in May, the West Bengal State Election Commission (WBSEC) Tuesday recalled the order citing “legal” complexities and after receiving letters from the government and TMC leader Kalyan Banerjee. The move drew sharp criticism from the Opposition BJP and Left which alleged the WBSEC had acted under government pressure.
The BJP Tuesday moved the Supreme Court and the Calcutta High Court, challenging the decision of the state election commission to withdraw the extended deadline. The Supreme Court has agreed to take up the matter Wednesday after the BJP sought an urgent hearing. While the Calcutta HC granted an interim stay on the WBSEC notification, the court’s order was issued after 3 pm deadline, which meant candidates were unable to file nominations.
Late on Monday, State Election Commissioner A K Singh had issued a notification which extended by a day the deadline for filing nominations. In the order, Singh had noted that the SEC had received complaints from Opposition parties that candidates were “prevented” from filing nominations.
“Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has directed the Commission to consider the grievance once made by any party or/and candidate as the case may be and pass appropriate order/s so that the intending candidates may not be deprived of their chance to contest the panchayat elections. therefore, the Commission. hereby extends the last date for making nomination for one day i.e. on 10.04.2018 from 11 am up to 3 pm,” the order on Monday said.
The order was issued after the SC, hearing a petition filed by the BJP on the panchayat elections, granted liberty to the aggrieved candidates to approach the state Election Commission. “We have not interfered with the election process but we have granted liberty to all candidates to approach State Election Commission today itself for necessary relief,” a bench of Justices R K Agrawal and A M Sapre had said.
On Tuesday, the WBSEC said the decision was reversed after receiving letters from the Special Secretary of the state government and Trinamool Congress leader Kalyan Banerjee pointing out legal complexities in the commission’s earlier notification.
“Whereas, in response to this order (issued Monday) a letter by the Special Secretary to the govt. of West Bengal and also representation by All India Trinamool Congress under the signature of Kalyan Banerjee were received pointing out legal infirmities in the commission’s order dated 9/4/2018 and… whereas it appears that there was no specific direction by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India for extension of the nomination date, now, therefore, on perusal of all the papers as stated above and considering all the points above, the Commission hereby recalls the said order and therefore rescinds the order,” noted Singh in his order.
The reversal Tuesday drew sharp criticism from the Opposition targeting the WBSEC. “The poor state election commissioner was forced to issue a fresh notification because he was under severe pressure from TMC leaders. We are surprised to see that he has not resigned from his position. Previously a state election commissioner had resigned after he failed to discharge his duty under a similar situation,” said West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh.
“However, today the present state election commissioner was intimidated by the ruling party to act according to its wish. We have reports that some state ministers also threatened him to do so. So he had no other option but to succumb to the pressure.”
BJP leader Mukul Roy said, “In this latest notification, the state election commissioner has clearly said that it was done after receiving objections from the state government and TMC. It is unprecedented.”
With scrutiny of candidates on Wednesday, the BJP emerged as the TMC’s main challenger panchayat polls in terms of the number of nominations filed. In 825 Zilla Parishad seats, the BJP filed 766 nominations compared to 563 and 377 nominations by the CPM and Congress. The TMC has filed about 1,066 nominations, including some seats, where they filed more than one nomination.
In 48,650 Gram Panchayat seats, the BJP filed 27,789 nominations while CPM and Congress have filed 17,303 and 7,239 nominations respectively. The TMC has filed 59,475 nominations in Gram Panchayats.
Left Front Legislature Party leader and CPM MLA Sujan Chakraborty alleged that some TMC leaders had forced the WBSEC into withdrawing Monday’s notification. “Just observe the chain of events which unfolded in last 12 hours. The notification was issued Monday night then TMC leaders paid a visit to the house of state election commissioner in the morning and then a fresh notification was issued recalling the earlier notification. It all reminded us of the previous instance when former state election commissioner S R Upadhyay had to resign because of the similar situation. The state election commission has lost its independence. Who is running this constitutional body?” Chakraborty asked.
S R Upadhyay had resigned as state election commissioner in October 2015 after he drew the ire of TMC leaders for putting off the counting of votes for municipal elections indefinitely.
Left Front chairman Biman Bose said they were contemplating a general strike in protest. “The commission is acting like a puppet. Tomorrow leaders of seventeen Left parties will sit together to decide whether to call a general strike in the state. The Left party workers will organise sit-in-demonstrations outside state election commission from April 11 to 16 barring April 14 and 15,” he said. he also said the CPM would move the Supreme Court against the WBSEC’s decision.
Denying the Opposition’s charges, the TMC said the WBSEC could not have extended the last date for nominations. “There is no scope.. The commission cannot do it by issuing a fresh notification. Secondly, the notification was issued after 3 pm when the nomination process had ended and the state election commission issued final nomination lists. So the nomination process had expired. So there was no scope for an extension,” TMC leader Kalyan Banerjee said.
TMC’s Birbhum district president Anubrata Mondal said, “The state election commission made a mistake by issuing a notification. It was not done as per law and today the commission has rectified its mistake. It has done what it felt was the right thing to do.”
Speaking to The Indian Express, Anju Malla, BJP candidate for Ratanpur gram panchayat in Bankura district, said she had gone to the Onda BDO office early on Tuesday morning to file her nomination.
“Since the date was extended, I went to the BDO office early to file my nomination. After standing in the queue for hours, we were told that the state election commission had recalled last night’s order. I felt dejected after the development and it was not TMC cadres which prevented me from filing my nomination but it was the commission itself which did the damage,” she said.
Sources in the WBSEC said that it would file an affidavit in the HC on Wednesday to clarify its stand on why it issued a fresh notification cancelling the previous one. It is also learnt that the commission is unlikely to extend the last date of nomination after high court’s order. The commission has directed all SPs to submit all nomination papers to the SDO office in respective districts for scrutiny which will begin on Wednesday.
The panchayat elections in West Bengal will be held on May 1, 3 and 5. The last date of filing of nominations was on April 9. The counting of votes will be held on May 8. —(With ENS in New Delhi)