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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Govt bares claws as legal battle looms

Govt bares claws as legal battle looms

Calcutta, March 30: The Bengal government served a virtual ultimatum on the state election commission to issue the panchayat poll notification today itself or take responsibility for any delay.

By late tonight, it was clear that the commission had declined to oblige, and signals from both sides suggested legal options would be activated if the stand-off did not end by early next week.

The state government sent a letter to the commission, asking it to issue the notification and warning that the panel would be held responsible for any delay. The warning was seen as a sign that the government was preparing to meet the commission in court where it is expected to pass the buck to the panel.

The election commission's intent took a more discernible shape. The panel, which had been consulting senior barrister Samaraditya Pal over the past 72 hours, has given his team the waqalatnama for representing it in court.

If no solution is found, sources indicated that the commission could file a petition in court sometime early next week.

The discourse also turned menacing with Trinamul leader Mukul Roy, who has been targeting the panel chief, issuing a direct threat. "If the elections get pushed to the peak summer months, if even one person dies in the heat during the poll process, we will bring the body to the commission's office and ask them for an explanation," Roy said.

Roy did not comment on the irony of the refusal to seek additional forces to prevent manmade violence and the concern for nature-induced tragedies.

State panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee said this afternoon — after a 30-minute meeting with the chief secretary, home secretary and the panchayat secretary — that the government had sent a letter to the commission.

"If the commission issues a notification today, polls on April 26 (the first phase) can be held…. Once the notification is issued, we can start discussing deployment and requisition of forces," Mukherjee said.

Government sources said the poll panel had been "warned" against delaying the election process and told that there could be "consequences" if a notification was not issued today.

"We know that the commission has been working on moving court. We wanted to let it know that we are also ready," said a government official, adding that today's letter was part of the legal strategy.

Commission secretary Tapas Ray said the poll panel was examining the contents of the letter and virtually ruled out the issuance of a notification today.

"A reply to the letter may be sent, but not tonight…. These things take time," Ray said late this evening, adding that a minimum 28-day gap is required between the date of the commission's notification and the first day of polling.

According to poll panel sources, after meeting barrister Pal for two hours on Thursday, six hours on Friday and four hours today, state election commissioner Mira Pande has "all but" decided to move the high court early next week.

Pal had been in the loop since Tuesday when the government sent a letter, which Pande had read out to the barrister over the phone that evening. The barrister had advised the commissioner then to "wait and watch", sources said.

Pal had represented Tata Motors in the high court in the case against the Singur land law.

Although Pande and Pal declined comment on the waqalatnama given to the barrister's team on behalf of the commission, sources said they went through 50-odd case histories and judgments during the meeting today.

"If we move the high court, it will be against the state government on the charges of non-cooperation in conducting peaceful elections. This has boiled down to central forces," said a source.

Other lawyers said the law empowered the commission to conduct panchayat polls and the state would have to provide logistic support.

"The commission will be held liable for any untoward incident during the elections. So the commission has to seek the intervention of the judiciary if the government fails to back it up," said a lawyer.

Senior government officials said the bureaucracy had tried its "best" to resolve the issue. "We were apprehensive of a court battle, which could well go against us. Despite our reservations against the use of central forces, we had tried to negotiate with the option of holding the polls in three or more phases so that the commission could be assured of efficient utilisation of available forces. But that option was ruled out," a senior official said.

Other sources said a section of lawyers on the state panel had echoed the bureaucrats but was overruled.

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