The impasse over panchayat polls continued even on Tuesday as both the state government and the State Election Commission (SEC) lawyers went into an overdrive with calculators, trying to figure out if there would be an adequate number of security personnel even if the polls were held in four phases as proposed by the government during the day.
On Tuesday morning, when the Union government informed the court that central forces would not be available for the polls, Chief Justice Arun Mishra remarked, “Elections must be held. They can’t be cancelled. But security is inadequate. It seems that splitting the phases is the only way out so that the polls can be held with whatever forces are available.”
The division bench of Chief Justice Arun Mishra and justice Joymalya Bagchi came up with a proposal to split the three phases into five and suggested the following dates: July 2, July 4, July 6, July 8 and July 9.
“Speak to your respective clients and discuss the proposal. Let the state’s chief secretary and home secretary speak to the State Election Commissioner and check the viability of the proposed dates,” the judges directed at about 11:30 am. The hearing was deferred for almost three hours, until 3pm. Both SEC counsel Samaraditya Pal and advocate-general Bimal Chatterjee, however, had their own objections.
Surprisingly, when hearing resumed at 3pm, the state government’s lawyers came up with their own proposal, turning down the court’s proposal. They split the districts into four phases: July 2, July 4, July 6 and July 9 (see chart below). The instant reaction of SEC counsel was, “This is unrealistic and unacceptable. How can we split the phases without knowing how many security personnel will be available? Talks with the state have failed.”
SEC officials later claimed that, even if the polls were conducted in four phases according to the state’s proposal, there would be a shortfall in the first three phases. The state government, however, stuck to its earlier stand, claiming that the shortfall would be “managed”. Earlier, justice Bagchi pulled up AG Bimal Chatterjee for the state’s failure to provide adequate security even after assurances. “It was assured that the state would provide adequate security. But you haven’t been able to fulfill your obligations.”
Public prosecutor Ashok Banerjee tried to explain that the security concerns of the SEC were based simply on apprehensions. But Justice Bagchi stumped him, saying, “Security is always based on apprehension. Because, once disaster strikes, there can only be relief and rehabilitation.”
The courtroom turned into a virtual arithmetic class on Tuesday, with the judges and lawyers of both parties trying to calculate for almost 20 minutes how many security personnel would be required to conduct the polls in four phases and whether there would be any shortfall. A hushed silence fell on the courtroom as lawyers for both the sides engaged in furious calculation. The judges even provided them with calculators to make it fast and easy. They kept whispering among themselves and were moving out of the room to consult with their clients over phone before rushing back to their seats and carrying on with their calculations.
Despite the rush, the lawyers turned out to be rather weak in arithmetic. Despite the calculators, the ‘classwork’ remained incomplete and the judges gave them homework to complete their calculations overnight. The matter will be heard again on Wednesday morning.