Coffee does what Didi won't- Polls in five phases, with central forces
|IMRAN AHMED SIDDIQUI|
New Delhi, June 28: The Bengal panchayat elections will be held in five phases from July 11 to 25 with the help of central forces, according to a revised schedule laid down by the Supreme Court today on the basis of a proposal from the state poll panel.
The breakthrough in the tortuous confrontation between the constitutional body and the executive came after a judge issued a smile-laced threat to keep taking coffee breaks till a solution was found.
Although the top court allowed the poll panel to propose the dates, the fundamental question of who enjoys primacy — the state election commission or the state government — was not addressed conclusively today. The court accepted the commission's phase-wise proposal after making minor modifications to the suggested dates.
But the election commission has had its way almost on all counts, especially on the number of phases and central forces (see chart). If the central forces for all phases are taken into account, they add up to 820 companies — 20 more than what the commission had sought.
The apex court clarified that nominations, scrutiny, printing of ballot papers and the status of candidates who have won uncontested would not be reviewed. The revisions are limited to the number of phases and the dates of polling.
The outcome, which capped a legal battle that wound its way from multiple courtrooms in Calcutta to Delhi, makes it clear that the delay could easily have been avoided had the government left the decisions to the panel. The chain of revisions — six on the last count — could also have been averted.
Although the state government's lawyers accepted the Supreme Court's decision, the political leadership is unhappy with the polls spilling over into the holy month of Ramazan that is scheduled to begin on July 10 or 11.
According to the three-phase polls notified earlier by the government, voting would have begun on July 2 and ended on July 9.
Senior advocate and Trinamul Congress MP Kalyan Banerjee, who represented the state government in the Supreme Court today, told The Telegraph: "We are not in agreement with the Supreme Court's order on the poll dates as they all fall in the month of Ramazan."
A state panel lawyer said tonight that the government would not make any further plea before the court to modify the dates.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee told an election rally in Hooghly: "If the court gives an order, we will be forced to conduct the polls. But I can say that people from the minority community will not take this well. I don't want elections during Durga Puja or Ramazan."
In the Supreme Court, the case was heard by the vacation bench of Justices A.K. Patnaik and Ranjan Gogoi at 3pm.
Gopal Subramaniam, the counsel for the Bengal government, said: "We are ready for four-phase elections. Proceedings are going on in the high court…. What is the point they want to make here?"
The Centre initially repeated its inability to provide forces, with its counsel Rakesh Khanna saying: "Our forces are deployed in Himachal Pradesh and Amarnath."
The bench asked Samaraditya Pal, counsel for the state election commission, to submit the number of security personnel required.
"We asked for 800 companies (80,000 personnel) on the polling days, out of which 300 companies would have been for campaigning and nomination days. But they have failed to do so. It should be rescheduled now," Pal replied.
"If you want to reschedule, tell me the new dates," Justice Patnaik told Pal.
In the same breath, the judge asked: "Does it require any consultation with the state government before fixing the election dates?"
Pal said that according to the Supreme Court, the poll dates have to be fixed by the state election commission and not the state government.
The judge nodded but did not make any observation on the issue. Justice Patnaik said: "Please tell us if it (polls) is rescheduled, what your requirement is."
Pal said the new dates should be July 6, 11, 14, 18 and 21 or 22. Kalyan Banerjee said it would be difficult if the elections were held during the fasting month of Ramazan.
But the court did not respond and asked Subramaniam about the number of forces the Bengal government could provide.
Kalyan Banerjee also pointed out that "martyrs' day", held to commemorate police firing victims, falls on July 21. The panel then suggested July 6, 11, 15, 19 and 22.
The rival camps started arguing with each other around 3.40pm, prompting Justice Patnaik to ask the Bengal government, the state election commission and the Centre to sit together.
"We are now going to have a cup of coffee and will come back after 10 minutes. If you need more time even after that, then we will go for another round of coffee. But you have to decide it today," Justice Patnaik said with a smile.
At 3.50pm, the judges took their seats but the three parties were still in a lawyer's chamber nearby. "We are very sorry. We need more time," said a Bengal government counsel.
"No problem. We will wait," the bench said.
After five minutes, Subramaniam told the court: "It's very challenging, My Lord. We are arriving at a consensus and it is being done without any controversy. We are agreeable to five phases as we are providing 35,000 for each phase and the shortfall will be provided by the Centre."
The bench then announced the new dates — July 11, 15, 19, 22 and 25, removing one date from the panel's revised proposal and adding another.