With the legal battle over security forces dragging on at least till June 24, the panchayat polls that are supposed to kick off on the eighth day from then have started appearing increasingly uncertain.
As things stand now, the State Election Commission (SEC) will not get to know before Monday at the earliest whether the state government will be in a position to bridge the yawning gap between the number of security personnel required for the first phase on July 2 and the number that the government has under its control.
According to the SEC, about 1.49 lakh security personnel (armed and unarmed) are required to conduct the first phase. But the Mamata Banerjee administration has only 48,000 police personnel. “We’ll be left with just seven days beginning Monday. It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that the polls will be held on time. The poll commission is extremely concerned. We’re all waiting to hear what the court decides,” a top-ranking official of the poll panel said.
The Centre’s advocate, SS Sarkar, told Calcutta High Court on Wednesday that he would require at least two days before he told the court how many security personnel the Centre could allocate. The high court has scheduled the next hearing for Monday.
Senior bureaucrats who had earlier served as state panchayat secretaries and former state election commissioners of neighbouring states also claimed that it was unlikely that polls would be held on time even if the Centre did come up with an assurance on Monday. “If the central forces were stationed on a single campus, one could send them to West Bengal in one day at the click of a button. They’re all scattered and have to be logistically arranged. It would take at least seven to 10 days to arrange for these forces and deploy them,” ML Majumder, former State Election Commissioner of Bihar, said.
Senior SEC officials told HT that standard procedure required that forces reach the respective areas (polling booths and premises) three days before the polls so that they could carry out flag marches and area domination exercises. “This means that the central forces will have to reach the city by next Thursday, so that they can be briefed on their assignments and dispatched to the respective areas. This deadline makes the situation all the more complicated, since only four days will be left beginning Monday, ”an SEC official said.
The CM is not in favour of holding the elections during the monsoon. On Wednesday, she reiterated her stand at a public rally, “Monsoon is not the ideal time for elections. But it’s a high court order and we’re abiding by it.” The state government had requested for almost 30,000 central police personnel. But sources in the Union home ministry have already hinted that they are not in a position to send 30,000 police personnel given their ‘over-stretched condition’. A section of the ministry of home affairs feels that the panchayat polls do not warrant the deployment of central forces.
Even though the advocate-general has been assuring Calcutta High Court that the state will arrange for forces either from the Centre or from other states to meet the shortfall, all its efforts have drawn a blank so far. Other states are yet to come up with any reply to the letters sent by the state government seeking forces.