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Calcutta HC Questions State EC's 'Neutrality' in Conducting 'Fair Panchayat Elections' in Bengal

The Calcutta High Court division bench said that it is expected that the SEC shall redeem itself by taking a note of the observations made in its order as a wake-up call.

Prema Rajaram, Sujit Nath

Updated:May 4, 2018, 9:28 PM IST
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Calcutta HC Questions State EC's 'Neutrality' in Conducting 'Fair Panchayat Elections' in Bengal
File photo of the Calcutta High Court.
Kolkata: The Calcutta High Court on Friday came down heavily on the State Election Commission (SEC) for ‘floundering while performing its Constitutional obligation’ in ensuring a free and fair panchayat elections in West Bengal.

While specifying that it will not interfere in the panchayat poll process, the division bench of Justice Biswanath Somadder and Justice Arindam Mukherjee observed that the ‘neutrality’ of the state poll body has been ‘seriously questioned’.

The court’s order came while it was hearing a petition filed by the Congress that referred to the April 21 notification of SEC as incomplete and not in accordance with the existing Panchayat Act.

The bench said that it is expected that the SEC shall redeem itself by taking a note of the observations made in its order as a wake-up call.

The court further said, “The State EC has not only been empowered with absolute authority but also been clothed with practically impenetrable immunity against interference with regard to the election process. A constitutional authority with such mighty stature and power is therefore required to perform its duties in such a fair and transparent manner so that no person can raise either an eyebrow or point an accusatory finger towards it.”

“However, in the facts of the present case, we find that the State Election Commission – ever since the issuance of the initial notification of the state government under section 42 of the Act of 2003 — with regard to holding of the 2018 Panchayat elections, has acted in such a manner that eyebrows have been raised and accusatory fingers have been pointed against it time and again. Its neutrality has been seriously questioned. It has floundered while performing its Constitutional obligation to uphold the democratic principles in a fair and transparent manner leading to a spate of litigations ever since the election process was set to motion.”

Stating that the commission has itself invited litigations after the election process has commenced, the bench said, "Instead, it ought to have allayed the fears and concern of all stakeholders and above all, the voters, who repose complete faith and trust on this august Constitutional body."

Gaining their confidence, therefore, is the commissions paramount duty before, during and after the election process commences, the court said.

“Keeping all the above factors in mind and based on a broad conspectus of the facts of the present case, we refrain from interfering with the order impugned only for such reasons as stated earlier. It is expected that the state EC shall redeem itself upon taking note of the observations made hereinbefore as a wake-up call. We, however, make it clear that any observation made by is in this judgment cannot be used in any manner by any political party/individual participating in the election process during its campaign,” it reads.

On May 8, a bench headed by Chief Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya will hear another petition filed by the Congress on the alleged inadequacy of security for the election.

Congress’ lawyer, Riju Ghosal said, “I welcome the division bench’s observation. We felt that the state EC is not working as per the Constitution to ensure free and transparent poll in Bengal and therefore we filed the petition. Hope, the EC will now act as per court’s order.”

Bengal Congress president, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, “Our demand is democratic as we want a free and fair poll in Bengal.”

On a similar note, BJP state general secretary, Pratap Banerjee said, “We don’t have any issues with the dates but safety and security of our leaders and the voters need to be taken care by the EC.”

On April 21, WBEC had announced the extension of panchayat poll nomination date by a day. The Congress had filed a writ petition challenging this notification stating that it is incomplete and should mention all dates like that of the polling, re-polling and counting.

The state EC was dealt a major setback on May 1 when the Calcutta High Court said that May 14 could be tentative and not the final date for the panchayat polls in Bengal.

The election body then announced May 14 as the polling date after the TMC government “suggested” a single phase election before Ramzan on May 14 and counting on May 16.

Justice Subrata Talukdar said that May 14 could be a tentative date but not the final one for the elections. The bench has referred the matter to a division bench, based on which the court on Friday questioned the State EC’s role in ensuring a free and fair election while performing its Constitutional obligation.

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| Edited by: Sanchari Chatterjee
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