Forget the panchayat polls in the near future even if the dispute over security forces is resolved right now.
Top poll panel officials told HT on Friday that the State Election Commission (SEC) cannot issue the notification in the next few weeks since the process of marshalling forces takes time.
The logic is clear: since SEC’s mandate is to ensure free and fair polls, the commission cannot notify elections unless it is satisfied with security arrangements. Two scenarios are possible – asking for paramilitary forces or requesting neighboring states to provide policemen.
HT had reported that the Mamata Banerjee administration was yet to place its requisition of armed police from other states since it believes that central forces were not needed to conduct the polls.
Senior bureaucrats who have organised elections in Bengal told HT that it takes weeks to arrange these forces. The state government is bent on holding the polls with its own policemen.
“Once we notify the polls, filing of nominations will start. It is likely to unleash violence over which we will not have any control. So, it is not possible to notify without proper security arrangements. Minimum logistics will have to be in place before the notification,” a senior SEC official said.
Another former state home secretary explained the time consuming process of putting forces in place. “The process will take weeks. Even if we place a requisition of 800 companies of central forces, past experiences have shown that there would be a lot of bargaining with the Centre after which only a portion (say around 500 companies) of the force is allotted. The state and the SEC will then again have to discuss as to how this handful of resources could be deployed. Here comes the utility of vulnerability mapping,” he said. “Normally this exercise is done beforehand. Once the Centre assures that central forces will be available and the probable dates for sending and deployment of the forces are communicated to the state government, only then the dates are announced. This exercise takes a few weeks. Announcement of dates should not be done without this assurance from the Centre,” a former home secretary told HT.
Section 42 of the West Bengal Panchayat Election Act 2003 states that the state government should, in consultation with the SEC, issue a notification to appoint the dates for the elections.
“Normally during this ‘consultation process’ the state government and SEC discusses threadbare the availability and borrowing of central forces, polling personnel and observers and other logistics. Only then the dates are announced,” the official said.
State panchayat minister had claimed that the chief secretary and the state panchayat secretary have already held at least 10 meetings with the SEC apart from other correspondences.
In its letter to the government on Thursday, the SEC claimed that none of the communications were ‘effective’ and hence the deployment of either central forces (which the SEC has been demanding) or armed police from other states (as the government is urging) was discussed.
“The government unilaterally declared the dates of the polls (April 26 and April 30). Now if the commission declares the dates, it would mean the nomination process would start immediately without any central forces in place. We cannot do this as there could be law and order problems. Second, it is the state government which will place the requisition for central forces but it has not done it,” the senior SEC official said.
Unless the SEC reverses its stand overnight and agrees to hold polls under state police, it is unlikely that the SEC notification would appear within the next few days. Under such circumstances, the dates announced by the state government will have to be reviewed and a fresh notification will have to be issued announcing new dates.
“But if the state government comes up with a fresh notification unilaterally, there would be a deadlock again,” a senior bureaucrat said.
HT has already reported that the polls are unlikely to be held on April 26 – the reason being that a minimum of 28 days and a maximum of 42 days has to be kept between the polling dates and the date of notification.