Bengal election commission: Inept chief or paper tiger?

By Anurag Dey,

Kolkata : He is being accused of ‘failing miserably’ and is being dubbed ‘spineless’ by opposition parties in West Bengal. Many are now asking for his resignation.

Support TwoCircles

The chief of the West Bengal State Election Commission, Sushanta Ranjan Upadhaya, has been at the centre of a political slugfest over the recent civic polls.

The crescendo of criticism almost reached a climax on May 19 after Upadhaya failed to depute a lawyer to put forward the commission’s viewpoint before the Supreme Court, where an appeal had been filed by the state government.

The issue concerns the holding of elections in seven municipalities in the state. The ruling Trinamool Congress had been resisting the polls for months, arguing that the municipalities were being upgraded to municipal corporations.

However, the opposition parties allege that the decision was prompted by the ruling party’s apprehensions that it may not do well in these municipalities.

The election commissioner, though, is unfazed about the invectives being hurled at him. “As regards allegations about my ineptness: it’s a democracy and everybody has a right to form their opinion,” Upadhaya told IANS adding “We have done everything possible to discharge our statutory obligation of holding a free and fair elections.”

The origin of the crisis may lie in the structure of the state election commission. Unlike the Election Commission of India with independent powers to supervise Lok Sabha and state assemblies elections, the Constitution does not provide the same powers to the state election commission which supervises panchayat and municipal polls.

Upadhyay says there were two key elements which the state election commission lacks and which limit its effectiveness.
“The commission should be empowered to fix the polls date and the administration must be deemed to be under the commission’s deputation during the polls,” Upadhyay said.

“While the Election Commission of India decides the poll dates in consultation with the centre, here the state government decides the polls date with the SEC playing only an advisory role. Further, the administration is not under the state commission during elections,” he lamented.

Upadhyay said that in states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu such powers had been given to the state election commissions, and therefore, the elections there were held without problems.

The tussle between the state government and the commission escalated when on April 16 the Calcutta High Court directed the state commission to complete the election process in the municipalities in the next two months.

In early May, the Mamata Banerjee government moved the division bench of the Court seeking a modification of the April 16 order. However, the plea was rejected. The Commission then announced that it would issue notification for polls on May 20 and the elections would be held on June 14.

The state government approached the apex court which on Tuesday (May 19) put on hold the elections to the seven municipal bodies.
No one represented the state commission.

“The commission’s stand shows it is engaged in a got-up game with the state government, said Rabindra Bharati University professor Biswanath Chakraborty, adding that it had announced the issue of notification to escape any charge of not obeying the high court order.

Upadhyay has not explained why the commission went unrepresented at the apex court.

Having succeeded Mira Pande – known for her grit and determination and who time and again moved the court against the state government to establish the writ of the commission – Upadhyay has publicly expressed his helplessness.

Political analysts say the state panel was constituted during the rule of the erstwhile Left Front regime, in a way that it could only be a ‘paper tiger’.

“It is ironical that the Left Front is calling Upadhyay ‘spineless’. It was they who ensured that the commission never had a spine,” Chakraborty said.

Political experts also point out that the appointment of Upadhyay – the first West Bengal Civil Service officer to occupy the coveted post – contributed to the panel’s problems.

“He was appointed to be a failure. The Trinamool didn’t want another Mira Pande, so instead of the practice of appointing IAS officers, they went for one who would toe their line,” Vidyasagar University professor Anil Kumar Jana told IANS. “The malady also lies in the commission being just a consultant to the state government,” added Jana.

The former ruling party CPI-M though says sufficient powers were available with the commission to work independently.
“It’s not about the availability of powers, rather the willingness to use them,” said CPI-M leader and legal expert, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya.

Upadhyay had drawn flak last month too from political commentators, a section of the media and political parties who alleged widespread violence and strong arm tactics by the Trinamool cadres in the polls to Kolkata Municipal Corporation and 91 municipal bodies spread across the state.

Upadhyay initially did concede that the KMC polls were “far from ideal” following complaints of booth capturing and voter intimidation. But later made a volte-face, rejecting demands for repolling, asserting that there had been no major law and order problems.