Kolkata: The Calcutta high court on Thursday took the unprecedented step of stalling the panchayat election process in West Bengal until 16 April and ordered the state election commission to give by then a detailed account of the actions taken to dispose of complaints of electoral malpractices.
Opposition parties had moved the Supreme Court as well as the Calcutta high court, seeking judicial intervention to prevent rigging of the upcoming polls to be held in early May. Both the courts had so far declined to interfere, upholding the commission’s autonomy in dealing with elections while asking opposition parties to take their complaints to the commission.
The matter will be heard next on 16 April.
With Thursday’s interim order, the Calcutta high court has called for scrutiny of the commission’s actions.
Opposition parties in the state have alleged repeatedly, citing reports of violence from across districts, that the commission has done nothing to ensure that their candidates could file nominations. Monday was the last day for filing nominations.
Several hours after the window closed on Monday and the Trinamool Congress started celebrating its uncontested victories, the commission issued a notification ordering the extension of time for filing nominations until 3pm on Tuesday. But on Tuesday morning, the commission revoked the notification after the state government and the Trinamool Congress raised questions about its legal validity.
Judge Subrata Talukdar observed that the notification of 10 April was an “abuse of discretion", adding that the “commission is now in need of help and guidance".
He also imposed a fine of Rs5 lakh on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for concealment of facts. The BJP did not mention that it had moved the Supreme Court on 10 April, while a similar petition was being heard at the Calcutta high court on the same day. The judge described it as “forum hunting".
Nilanjan Sandilya, secretary of the state election commission, submitted that the watchdog had not received any complaints from opposition parties. Sourabh Kumar Das, secretary in the panchayat and rural development department, said the state had followed the necessary procedure in asking the commission to conduct the elections.
Under the local law of West Bengal, the state election commission decides the schedule and arrangements for panchayat polls in consultation with the state government.
The judiciary’s view on the panchayat election appears to have changed since Tuesday, when Talukdar issued an injunction on the commission’s reversal of its own decision to allow more time to file nominations. At the same time, he did not ask the commission to extend the time for filing nominations, which meant it did not in any manner alter the course of the election process.
The Trinamool Congress said it will challenge the order on Friday in the division bench. There are several judgements to show that the court cannot intervene once the election process has started, said Kalyan Banerjee, a Trinamool Congress MP and a lawyer.
Congress chief in West Bengal Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said his party had not prayed for stalling of the election. “We only wanted the high court to intervene and ensure that our candidates are able to file nominations," he added.