New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday asked the West Bengal State Election Commission (WBSEC) as to whether it conducted any probe into the fact that a large number of seats in the local body elections in the state went uncontested.
Out of a total 58,692 posts for gram panchayat village, zilla parishad and panchayat samiti, 20,159 had remained uncontested in the violence-marred local polls in the state held in May this year.
A bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud told the state poll panel that the issue of huge number of uncontested seats has been bothering it.
It asked the poll panel as to whether any inquiry was conducted with regard to the fact that a large number of seats in the local bodies elections had gone uncontested.
"It is your (poll panel) constitutional duty to conduct free and fair elections," it said.
Senior advocate Amrendra Sharan, appearing for the poll panel, said that 33 per cent of nearly 50,000 panchayat seats going uncontested in the state was not "an alarming situation". He cited Uttar Pradesh where almost 57 per cent panchayat seats went uncontested and the figure was was 51, 67 and 27.6 per cent in Haryana, Sikkim and Andhra Pradesh respectively.
He said that the poll panel cannot persuade political parties to field candidates and, moreover, it took prompt actions when it received complaints about Panchayat elections and even held re-polls.
Senior advocate Vikas Singh, appearing for the West Bengal government, said that the panchayat polls cannot be set aside on the basis of "conjecture and surmises" of some political parties as no individual candidate has approached the court with the claim that he or she has been restrained from filing nomination papers.
Another senior advocate Kalyan Banerjee, appearing for ruling All India Trinamool Congress party, said that not a single candidate has approached any court with the grievance that he or she has been stopped from filing nomination papers.
He also said that the allegations that the election process was marred by incidents of stalling candidates from filing nomination papers was neither brought nor adjudicated upon by the Calcutta High Court.
The court said, "The issue of acceptance or non acceptance of nomination papers has to be debated upon and decided by the court in the election petition" and the issue before it was "non-contest" in many seats in the local bodies elections.
The counsel for CPI(M) and BJP opposed the contention of the state government, poll panel and the TMC and alleged that West Bengal did not witness a free and fair election and the candidates hailing from these two parties were stopped from filing nomination papers.
The hearing would continue on Tuesday.
Earlier, the apex court had expressed shock at the fact that "thousands and thousands" of seats in the recent West Bengal panchayat polls had remained uncontested, observing that these figures showed that grass root-level democracy was not working.
It had directed the state election commission to provide exact statistics about such contested posts by Tuesday.
Elections were held in phases for 48,650 posts in Gram Panchayats, 825 posts in Zilla Parishads and 9,217 posts in Panchayat Samitis and it has been alleged that around 34 per cent seats were uncontested.
Senior advocate P S Patwalia, appearing for West Bengal unit of BJP, had said violent incidents took place during the elections and people were not allowed to file their nomination papers. He also provided a district-wise break-up of the uncontested seats.
During the previous hearings, the apex court had stayed the Calcutta High Court order asking the state election body to accept the nomination papers filed through e-mail for panchayat elections and directed the poll panel not to declare in the gazette the names of those candidates who had won unopposed.
The bench, however, had then refused to stay the poll process observing that there were a plethora of judgements which have held that once the poll process has begun, it cannot be interfered into by any court.
The counsel for CPI(M) and the BJP had alleged that several of their candidates were not allowed to file nomination papers, which had led to about 34 per cent of the candidates belonging to the ruling Trinamool Congress, winning unopposed.
The court was hearing an appeal filed by the state election panel against the High Court order asking it to accept the nomination papers filed through e-mail for the panchayat elections.
The CPI(M) had claimed that many of its candidates were prevented from filing nominations by the state's ruling Trinamool Congress.
The SEC petition arrayed CPI(M) as a respondent, besides the state government, the ruling Trinamool Congress, state panchayat secretary and others. The BJP was later allowed to be a party to the litigation.