Bengal panchayat polls: Parties petition HC for Central security, fearing violence

With polls slated for July 8, less than a week to file nominations and a party worker murdered already, Opposition parties are worried about a blood bath like in 2018

Representative image of a voter's finger being marked at the polling booth (photo: Getty Images)
Representative image of a voter's finger being marked at the polling booth (photo: Getty Images)

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

With the panchayat elections in West Bengal scheduled for July 8, the last date for filing nominations was to be June 15.

However, similar to the violent 2018 polls, chaos and tension marked the first day of filing nominations in West Bengal’s panchayat polls on Friday, June 9, with a Congress worker having been shot dead in Murshidabad. Was the timing deliberate to initiate unrest in the state? That's an obvious question.

This is far from the only question around the arrangements for the poll in the state, however. Some other questions are: Should the polls be held under the watch of the Centre or should the state police be trusted with maintaining law and order? Does the state election commission have the capacity to conduct the election in a single phase, and during the course of just one day, July 8, as notified this week? And yes, did the state election commission err by allowing just a week for filing nominations?

Observing that the time given for filing nominations is prima facie inadequate, the Calcutta High Court has already directed the West Bengal State Election Commission (SEC) to file its response on the extension of dates, as well as its position on the deployment of Central forces during the poll process by Monday, June 12, when the matter will come up for hearing again.

The SEC on Thursday announced that the polls would be held on July 8 and the last date for filing nominations was June 15, providing only a week for filing nominations for over 70,000 seats. Notably, the notification was released just a day after the new state election commissioner, Rajiv Sinha, took over.

The state Opposition parties, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) alike contended that a week’s time is "inadequate" and "impossible" for filing nominations. Represented by INC president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari of the BJP, the parties then petitioned the Calcutta HC for an extension of the last date.

Lawyers appearing for the two petitioners in separate PILs highlighted that given that there were two holidays (June 10 and 11) within the stated period between June 9 and 15, there are effectively just five days to file nominations. 

The court also noted that the notification for the panchayat elections was published on Friday morning and that the nomination process was to start at 11:00 am on the same day. "This, in our view, would appear to be hurrying up the process, which needs to be reconsidered by the SEC," the court said.

Arguing that this move is "designed to benefit the ruling party in the state"—the Trinamool Congress (TMC)—and sets a precedent for large-scale violence, reminiscent of the 2018 polls, petitioners pleaded that the elections be held under the watch of Central security forces. 

In the 2018 panchayat polls, 23 people died and 50 were injured on the polling day and the preceding night, while in 2019 the Union home ministry cited 693 violent incidents and 11 deaths during the general election.

Indeed, the prayer to the HC can be seen to have its genesis in the electoral history of the state, where dominant parties have often muscled out opponents and prevented them from filing nominations. Another strategy deployed by dominant parties is to ‘jam the queues’ with their own men to ensure that opponents do not get the time and the space to file nominations.

A staggering 30 per cent of the seats were won unopposed last time by the Trinamool Congress. Earlier elections in the state too have witnessed similarly one-sided results, giving rise to doubts about a fair poll.

"It's a murder of democracy. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and State Election Commissioner Rajiv Sinha will be held responsible for any casualty resulting due to violence that might erupt during the elections, because of this hasty declaration and lack of application of reasonable diligence and consideration towards proper security arrangements," argued Adhikari.

Chowdhury too demanded that the polls be held under the direct supervision of the Central armed forces to avoid violent clashes. "At present, in West Bengal, the rule of the jungle prevails all over, under which the thugs and miscreants of the ruling party are preying upon the Opposition workers like the monsters of the deep," the INC leader said. "I humbly solicit your good office to do the needful for conducting the said election under the direct supervision of the central forces," he wrote in a letter to state governor C.V. Ananda Bose.

In response, Sinha said, "We are going to review the situation and may contemplate extending the date. However, it will be done as per legal opinion.”

"We are making every effort to conduct peaceful polls," he said. "The polling will not only be peaceful but transparent. That is the message given to those involved in the voting process. There will be adequate security measures for the panchayat election. Adequate forces will be posted at every booth so that voters feel secure and safe while casting their votes."

Meanwhile, state governor Bose on Saturday gave a strong message to Sinha to take adequate measures to prevent any form of violence during the polls.

During his meeting with Sinha, who was summoned to the Raj Bhavan on Saturday, the Governor expressed concern over the reports of clashes that have already broken out in different pockets of the state since the filing of nominations started on Friday.

As per sources, Bose also inquired whether there are adequate forces in the state to ensure peace and fair polls, and if the SEC was considering the deployment of central armed forces.

Sinha said the issue of deployment of central forces often depends on the direction of the court, and since a matter on this count is pending at the Calcutta HC, the poll commission is looking forward to the court order; he added that an all-party meeting on panchayat polls will be held on June 13.

West Bengal has 3,317 gram panchayats, with over 70,000 panchayat seats. In this predominantly rural state, panchayats are powerful and have access to sizeable government funds for ‘development’ and routine work, giving rise to corruption and leakages.

Panchayat polls are also an important barometer of popular mood in the state, particularly since they are generally held the year before the general election. The current panchayat polls are being seen as the final test for parties ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, particularly for the TMC, which faced stiff competition from the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Stained by the ongoing recruitment scam and an array of corruption allegations against top party leaders, TMC is counting on the panchayat polls to regain their stronghold. 

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