statesman news service
KOLKATA, 25 JUNE: There seems to be no end in sight for the panchayat poll imbroglio. For, although Calcutta High Court today suggested to the state government and the state election commission (SEC) to explore the possibility of converting the three-phase poll into a five-phase one to take care of the security concerns, the advocate general submitted the state could only agree to a four-phase election.
The SEC, on the other hand, insisted rescheduling would be meaningless unless the state government specified the available quantum of force and mode of deployment.
In a significant observation, the Division Bench of Mr Arun Mishra, Chief Justice and Mr Justice Joymalya Bagchi held: “An addition of two more phases to the poll schedule seems to be the only way out, as there seems to be a shortfall of almost 77,000 personnel and we do not want a repoll owing to law and order problems as neither the Union government nor the state government is fulfilling a reasonable requirement.”
“Now, only the options of increasing the number of phases or postponing the elections are before us. Security is always sought on the basis of apprehension and once disaster strikes, there can be only relief and rehabilitation,” the court further observed.
The suggestion of staggering the polls further was made after the counsel of the Union home ministry stated the ministry would not be able to send more security forces.
The court proposed a revised schedule on 2, 4, 6, 8 and 9 July. The state counsel submitted after consultation with senior officers at Writers’ Buildings that a four-phase schedule of 2, 4, 6 and 9 July was more acceptable to it. In the four-phase scheme, election could be held in Purulia, Bankura and Mid-napore (west) on 2 July; North and South-24-Parganas, How-rah, Hooghly, Burdwan and Midnapore (east) on 4 July; Nadia, Malda, Murshidabad and Birbhum on 6 July; and North and South Dinajpur, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri on 9 July.
The state government pleaded it would be immensely difficult to hold the fourth and fifth phases of the poll on consecutive days ~ 8 July and 9 July ~ as suggested by the court.
But, when the commission counsel stood firm on the demand for adequate forces, a calculator was given by the court to work out the strength of security forces for each phase. However, the court couldn’t accept the figure computed by the commission counsel and asked it to compute afresh.
Earlier, after the Union home ministry counsel had made it clear that the Centre was unable to provide forces, the Division Bench observed: “This is a serious matter as it involves the issue of local self government and it is difficult for the court to come to an objective conclusion without empirical data.”
The court handed over the letter of the Union home ministry to the government pleader, Ashok Banerjee and asked him not to read it aloud. “The forces at your disposal cannot be utilised unless the number of phases are increased,” the Division Bench pointed out.
“The apprehensions of violence in the rural polls are based on media reports. The large number of nominations filed belie the apprehension of violence,” the government pleader submitted.
Advocate general Bimal Chatterjee pleaded: “I am not indulging in blame game, but I cannot manufacture security forces. It is the commission which is sticking to its guns, but the state is not backing out.”
Also, he submitted there had to be a map while deciding on the deployment of forces.
The commission counsel Samaraditya Pal iterated rural poll was not possible without adequate guarantee of security forces and the commission couldn’t give its assent without knowing the quantum of forces available. The matter will come up for hearing tomorrow.
Sources in the state administration said there was still a shortfall of 40,000 security personnel in the second phase and 6,000-8,000 in the third phase.
If the first phase of polls was held in nine districts, as notified earlier, then there was a requirement of 1,49,000 forces while the government possessed 57,000 forces. The six districts proposed for the second phase are thickly populated and the security forces available with the government are inadequate. There is a shortfall of around 40,000 forces in this phase.
Similarly, there is a shortfall of around 6,000 to 8,000 in the third phase that includes Nadia, Murshidabad, Malda and Birbhum. Adequate security forces are available only for the first and fourth phases.
Earlier during the day, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said at Writers Buildings: “I don’t want to comment on High Court’s verdict regarding panchayat elections but we want election”. “The state wants the elections to be held peacefully. I am busy with panchayat election campaigning. I got drenched during the campaign yesterday and I had to take medicine at night,” she said.
A meeting was held in the morning prior to Miss Banerjee’s press conference. Finance minister Mr Amit Mitra, chief secretary Mr Sanjay Mitra, home secretary Mr Basudeb Banerjee and panchayat secretary Mr Sourav Das attended the meeting. Later, chief secretary and home secretary left the Writers’ Buildings for the SEC office. After returning to Writers’ Buildings, another round of meeting was held with the chief minister that continued for half-an-hour.
The Congress blamed the state government’s “casual approach” and a “mind set” not to hold the rural poll “but play politics over” for the current mess.
PCC president Pradip Bhattacharya, said had the state government sought the Central forces well in time as had been demanded by the Opposition parties and the state election commission, the problem wouldn’t have arisen. “Going by the state government’s fresh proposal for four-phase elections by splitting the first phase into two, the security shortfall will still be there,” SEC joint secretary, Sabbyasachi Ghosh, said in the evening.