THE legal battle between the State Election Commission (SEC) and the government over the holding of panchayat elections has brought to the fore crucial constitutional issues and questions on the law and order situation in the State.

After much bitter wrangling and an exchange of letters, the SEC challenged in the Calcutta High Court the Trinamool Congress government’s announcement on March 22 that the panchayat elections would be held in two phases, on April 26 and 30. While Article 243K of the Constitution states that the “superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to the panchayats shall be vested in a State Election Commission”, Section 42 of the West Bengal Panchayat Elections Act, 2003, states that the State government, “in consultation with the commission, by notification, (will) appoint the date or dates, hour or hours of poll for any election or bye-elections”.

The State government maintained that the SEC came into the picture only after the government announced the date or dates of the polls. The SEC held that Section 42 of the said Act was null and void since a State Act cannot override the provisions in the Constitution. The matter is under consideration of a Single Bench of the High Court. The terms of most of the panchayat bodies will end in June. The issue of deployment of Central paramilitary forces has been one of the key points of the deadlock. The SEC insists on having Central forces for area domination, pointing out that there is comparatively greater violence during election time in West Bengal than in other States. It also cited the overall increase in political violence in the State.

The government maintained that “stray incidents” of violence can hardly be an indicator of the law and order situation. “The State government does not accept the rationale behind the deployment of 800 companies of Central paramilitary forces, which would cost the State exchequer Rs.400 crore,” said Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee. The government said the State’s own armed police and, if necessary, supplemented by police forces lent from neighbouring States would be enough.Counsel for the SEC drew the court’s attention to the recent spate of political violence in the State following an attack on State Finance Minister Amit Mitra in New Delhi on April 9 by Students’ Federation of India (SFI) members protesting against the death of an SFI activist in transit police custody in Kolkata. Trinamool activists went on the rampage, destroying CPI(M) party offices all over the State; they even attacked the Presidency University and ransacked the heritage Baker Laboratory there. The opposition parties were critical of the Trinamool Congress’ intransigence on the issue of paramilitary forces. “The Central forces are needed more on the days of filing of the nomination than on the day of the election itself. The Trinamool does not want their presence because it simply wants to hijack the nomination process and win uncontested in as many seats as possible,” said Om Prakash Mishra, general secretary of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee.Many political observers agreed with the opposition view that the State government taking on the SEC was nothing more than a ploy to defer the elections. “The Trinamool is shaky about facing elections. With every passing day there is erosion in its vote bank. That is why initially it wanted the elections as early as possible. Since that did not happen, they now want to defer it,” said Surya Kanta Mishra, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member and Leader of the Opposition.

Om Prakash Mishra said that it would suit the Trinamool to postpone the elections and “not expose itself as a party in retreat”. The results of the recent byelections in Rejinagar in Murshidabad district, Nalhati in Birbhum and English Bazaar in Malda were an eye-opener for the ruling party. This was the first time it faced elections after parting ways with the Congress, and it could win only one seat—English Bazaar. “It is true we expected to win all three, but it must also be borne in mind that Rejinagar and Nalhati were never our strong areas,” said a Trinamool Congress source.

The ruling party is plagued with factional fights that have increased over the months. This factor, many feel, may affect the party adversely in the elections. The party leadership, however, maintained that the State government was not shying away from the elections.

The Saradha scam

Most recently, the State government also found itself mired in a controversy with the collapse of the Saradha group of companies, which operated what amounted to Ponzi schemes throughout the State and ran several newspapers and television channels. Lakhs of poor people, many of them from the rural areas, have been ruined by what is being seen as one of the biggest scams in West Bengal in the recent years. The Trinamool Congress’ closeness to the group is no secret. A Rajya Sabha member of the party, Kunal Ghosh, headed the group’s media unit and a Lok Sabha member of the party, the film actress Satabdi Roy, was known to be the brand ambassador of some of the group’s businesses.

A large section of the people who had invested in the Ponzi schemes claimed that it was the State government’s closeness to the group that gave them the confidence to invest in it. “We put our trust in the government and our money in Saradha. Now what has the government got to say,” said Alok Das, a small farmer from North 24 Parganas who lost more than Rs.1 lakh in the scam.

In an 18-page letter to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on April 6, the chairman and managing director of the group, Sudipto Sen, stated that he had entered into an agreement with Kunal Ghosh and Srinjoy Bose (also a Rajya Sabha member of the Trinamool Congress) who were representing the Bengali newspaper ‘Pratidin’. Under the agreement, he would pay ‘Pratidin’ Rs.60 lakh a month and appoint Kunal Ghosh as the CEO of the news channel on a salary of Rs.15 lakh a month. “‘Pratidin’ has also given me assurance that on execution of this agreement they will protect my business from the government, i.e. State government and also Central government, and I will be able to get a smooth passage and they assured me that they have very close connection with the present CM of West Bengal, i.e. Mamata Banerjee,” the letter states.

The Trinamool Congress will find it difficult to shrug off its responsibility and erase the stain on its reputation. There are many within the party who fear serious electoral reverses in many parts of the State should the panchayat elections be held soon. This may give Mamata yet another reason to want to further postpone the elections.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay