The Uttarakhand disaster has cast a shadow over the West Bengal panchayat elections, with the Union home ministry informing Calcutta High Court on Monday that the need to divert personnel for relief and rescue efforts had severely hampered its ability to send forces to the state for the conduct of the rural polls.
“The Indian Army and Air Force have undertaken one of their biggest rescue operations in the flood-hit regions of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and there’s an ongoing demand for the central armed forces to be deployed in that region.
“Under such circumstances, the Union home ministry isn’t in a position to deploy the central forces for the rural polls,” SS Sarkar, advocate for the Union government, told the court.
Sarkar’s submission is the latest setback for the Mamata Banerjee administration, which is currently facing a shortfall of more than 90,000 police personnel for the first phase of the elections scheduled for July 2.
With the State Election Commission (SEC) adamant that it will not allow the polls to go forward unless adequate security arrangements are put in place, state advocate-general Bimal Chatterjee remarked that the poll panel was behaving as if it was not inclined to hold the panchayat elections on time. Rejecting Chatterjee’s allegation, SEC counsel Samaraditya Pal argued, “The nomination phase has already witnessed enough deaths. How many more deaths do you want during the polls?”
Acknowledging the impasse, the Bench asked both sets of counsel for a solution. “It can’t be denied that, without adequate security, free and fair elections can’t be held. The situation in the Maoist-infested districts is also dangerous. But the elections have to be held. In that case, what’s the solution?” the judges asked. The bench also hinted at either possibly increasing the number of phases or invoking Article 355 of the Indian Constitution, which says it is Centre’s duty to ensure that the government of every state is carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
Experts had earlier hinted that unless the rural polls were held on time, the state would face a constitutional crisis. When asked if the SEC was leaning towards increasing the phases, state election commissioner Mira Pande said, “Not now. In that case, we’d have to issue a fresh notification. Chief justice Mishra directed Sarkar to inform the court how many security personnel the Centre would be able to provide. But after Sarkar told the court that he needed time to come up with the information, the bench deferred the matter until Tuesday.
With no immediate end in sight to the legal battle over security forces, the polls scheduled to kick off in about a week now appear increasingly uncertain.