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No time for niceties

It seems to be a case of an unstoppable force running into an immovable object. Delayed panchayat elections in Bengal undermine Mamata Banerjee's credibility. Suhit K Sen writes.

india Updated: Apr 09, 2013 22:27 IST
Suhit K Sen
Suhit K Sen

It seems to be a case of an unstoppable force running into an immovable object. Thus, over the past few days it was becoming abundantly clear that the differences between the West Bengal government and the state election commission over the logistics of the panchayat elections would ultimately land up in a court of law.

The Calcutta High Court will rule on the matter, but it is far from unlikely that the case will end up in the Supreme Court. From a strictly legal point of view both sides have a case. Before going into that, a brief recapitulation of the dispute would be useful. After much skirmishing, the state government announced that the panchayat elections in Bengal would be conducted in two phases - on April 26 and 30. It also announced that the state armed police would be deployed for the elections. The election commission had recommended three-phase elections along with the deployment of central forces.

Both sides were spoiling for a fight. The government refused to heed the commission's recommendation and the commission, which is empowered to notify the election, refused to do so. When the governor tried to broker peace, the state government agreed to alter the plan, but it refused to consider the commission's principal plea - the deployment of central forces, arguing that it would be too costly a proposition.

As far as the legal position is concerned, as mentioned earlier, both sides have cases to argue. The state government relies principally on the state law, which empowers it to notify the election dates in consultation with the state election commission. The government argues, moreover, that since law and order is a state subject, it has the right to detail security arrangements.

The election commission is expected to argue its case from a constitutional vantage, citing a provision that gives it the sole power to conduct panchayat elections, including fixing their schedule and deciding on deployment of staff and security personnel. The judiciary now has the unenviable task of sorting out this jurisdictional imbroglio.

The legal aspect of the case is obviously of paramount importance, but every bit as important are the political implications of this wrangle and what it tells us about chief minister Mamata Banerjee, her party and the government she heads.

Banerjee has demonstrated many times that she does not feel particularly bound by the niceties of parliamentary democracy. Banerjee's pugnacity has stood her in good stead in her long years of street-fighting, when it seemed that nothing could ever dislodge the Left Front from its perch. Most opposition leaders rolled over and played possum. Banerjee didn't. But this pugnacity does her no credit while she sits in the chief minister's seat. From human rights abuses, invective directed at critics, to an unconscionable readiness, as we are seeing, to take on constitutional authorities, Banerjee's politics is purely destructive.

She would have done well to restrain panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee and Mukul Roy, her party's national general secretary, from threatening and hectoring the election commissioner. She encouraged them instead. This trajectory does not suggest that Bengal's public political sphere will witness a positive turn.

Suhit K Sen is a freelance historian, writer and researcher

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 09, 2013 22:20 IST