New SEC Upadhyay has task cut out for him


By bappaditya paul

Mamata Banerjee’s bete noir Mira Pande will complete her tenure as State Election Commissioner on 21 July and Susanta Ranjan Upadhyay, a retired WBCS officer, will fill in her shoes the next day.

Susanta Ranjan Upadhyay
Susanta Ranjan Upadhyay

But notwithstanding the “friendly to government” tag that some sections have awarded to Mr Upadhyay, it will be difficult for the new SEC to back out from the legal battle that Mrs Pande is leaving behind over holding elections to 17 civic bodies in the state.

Legal and civic poll experts say that under Article 243U of the Constitution, it is the SEC’s obligation to hold timely elections to civic bodies. “It is immaterial who is in office: the poll panel can not shy away from this Constitutional obligation. It shall have to exploit every Constitutional avenue to conduct the polls,” said a retired High Court judge unwilling to be named.

Article 243U, clause (1) reads: “Every Municipality, unless sooner dissolved under any law for the time being in force, shall continue for five years from the date appointed for its first meeting and no longer.” Clause (3), sub clause (a) further makes it clear that polling to a civic body shall be held: “before the expiry of its duration specified in clause (1).

West Bengal state election commissioner Ms Mira Pande
West Bengal state election commissioner Ms Mira Pande

The five year term of 17 civic bodies in the state ~ Mal, Kaliaganj, Gangarampur, Madhyamgram, Rajarhat-Gopalpur, South Dum Dum, Dum Dum, Rajpur-Sonarpur, Maheshtala, Uluberia, Dankuni, Egra, Sainthia, Asansol, Kulti, Islampur and the Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad ~ is expiring between 17-31 July.

The Bengal government however, does not want the polls till next year on the excuse that it is monsoon now and some of the civic bodies in question are to be restructured. This made Mrs Pande move the Calcutta HC.

“Before moving to the High Court, we wrote the state government numerous times. The government sat on the matter till early June when it wrote back saying that the polls could not be held before the civic bodies were restructured and a favorable season sat in,” said a senior SEC official. “This reasoning is absurd as civic polls had been held in the peak summer of 2009. Also one cannot defer the polls for a prolonged period on the excuse of restructuring; restructuring can be carried out after the polls.”

Mamata Banerjee A Calcutta HC advocate, not linked to this case, pointed out that the new SEC’s options have been limited by the fact that Mira Pande meticulously followed all procedures before knocking the court.

“Mr Upadhyay can not get into a fresh negotiation with the government as the latter has shut that possibility,” he said. “The best-case scenario will be that the High Court asks both the parties to propose an amicable solution to it; this can only happen if the government blinks in favour of an early polls, at least in those civic bodies, that are not being restructured. As regards the rest, under Section 14 (4) of the West Bengal Municipal Act, 1993 the government can appoint administrators to run them till the restructuring is complete.”

Of the 17 civic bodies whose elections are due, seven feature in list of municipalities that are to be restructured or upgraded.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 20 July 2014.)



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