In Salty High Court Order On Panchayat Polls, Mamata Banerjee Settles For Silver Lining

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee welcomed the Kolkata High Court ruling, asserting that she wanted the panchayat elections to be held soon.

In Salty High Court Order On Panchayat Polls, Mamata Banerjee Settles For Silver Lining

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wants panchayat elections to be held as soon as possible.

KOLKATA:  West Bengal's election commission has to extend the deadline to let candidates file nominations, the Calcutta High Court ordered on Friday, a decision will also require the State Election Commission (SEC) to reschedule panchayat elections that were due to be held on 1, 3 and 5 May.

The verdict, seen as a setback to the Mamata Banerjee government, was delivered on petitions by opposition parties for nomination deadline extension after the SEC's rollback. The state commission, on 9 April, extended the deadline for filing nominations to 10 April. But the next day, it rolled back its order, allegedly under pressure from the ruling Trinamool.

Opposition parties claimed supporters of Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool attacked opposition candidates when they went to administrative offices in the districts to file nominations from 2 to 9 April. Videos of clashes went viral, of bombs being hurled, opposition vehicles being stones and opposition candidates going to file papers with bows and arrows in their hands. Women were also seen on video clips being thrashed, allegedly by Trinamool supporters.

On 9 April, when nominations closed, Trinamool had fielded more candidates than the number of seats: 58,000-odd. BJP filed about 35,000 nominations, CPM 22,000 and the Congress even less.

Mamata Banerjee welcomed the court order this evening but hoped the SEC would hold the polls as soon as possible, primarily because of soaring temperatures in the districts and sudden storms. A couple of days ago, she pointed out, 18 people were killed.

"We want elections as soon as possible. Ramzan is also coming up. The state has 30 per cent Muslims. They will fast for a month. If polls were held during Durga Puja, we would suffer. If we hold polls during Ramzan, they will suffer," Mamata Banerjee said.

In the last few days, however, Ms Banerjee had attacked opposition parties accusing them of trying to avoid facing the people. Besides the BJP, she had attacked the Congress specially for siding with the BJP in Bengal and with Trinamool in Delhi. Ms Banerjee has been trying to forge a united front against the NDA government at the Centre.

Opposition parties have called the court order a "landmark" decision, a moral victory for the opposition and a blow to the Trinamool Congress.

Kalyan Banerjee, Trinamool lawmaker who represented the government in court, claimed it wasn't so. "They have all ganged up against us but it doesn't matter, Mamata Banerjee zindabad," he said said after leaving court after the verdict.

"I agree all my submissions were not accepted by the court but the demands of the oppositions were also not fully met either. Opposition parties wanted the entire election process set aside and the poll process started afresh, they wanted online nominations, paramilitary forces, a new election commissioner -- the court did not accept any of that," Mr Banerjee, also a Lok Sabha member, said.

The high court, he underlined, had granted only one day of extension of nomination and rescheduling of poll dates. "The state election commission has to do it in consultation of state government and if it wants, the panchayat election can be over by 15 May." Kalyan Banerjee explained.

According to legal experts, the court did not specify a one-day extension of nomination deadline. The laws governing panchayat polls specify that if there is an extension of nomination, then there may be an extension of only one day.

The maintainability of the Opposition writ petitions was another contentious issue. Mr Banerjee, on behalf of Trinamool, had challenged the fact that the single bench admitted the writs in the first place. He had claimed they were not "maintainable" and gone to a two-judge bench. But that bench did not intervene and today, the single judge bench said the writs were indeed maintainable.  

But the opposition is jubilant.

"This is a victory, not of political parties... It is victory of democracy which was ruined in Bengal. Court has rightly interfered and justice will prevail," BJP's legal advisor Sumit Chaudhury said.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of the Congress called the court ruling "unprecedented in the history of West Bengal, which means a moral victory for all opposition parties and clearly vindicates the allegation and violence by the opposition".

He however warned that "the verdict may not not mean violence-free election".

"I urge Mamata Banerjee not to take everyone for a ride," he said.

"We are happy with the verdict," added Rabin Deb of the CPM. "People who wanted to be candidates will get opportunity to submit their nomination but the question is, will the state police ensure the implementation of the court order".

He also said that "unopposed victories" that have already been declared would now be invalid. The Trinamool had won several seats without a fight as the opposition had not been able to field candidates.

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