Mamata government blinks, but standoff with poll panel continues

Kolkata, March 26 (IANS) Faced with a gritty state election panel, the West Bengal government Tuesday flip flopped but blinked, agreeing to reorganise the districts in the two phase rural body polls late next month on a dramatic and action packed day.

However, a solution to the battle between the election commission and the Mamata Banerjee-led government still seemed a far cry with the poll panel sticking to its stand that the elections would have to be conducted by deploying the central paramilitary forces.
The state government, despite the climbdown from its earlier stand of holding the polls in 14 districts April 26 and in the remaining three districts Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur April 30, continued to attack the commission.
A senior state minister termed as “impractical and irrelevant” the greater portion of a letter written by the panel to the government Monday and said “it seemed to have been drafted by a school boy”.
In the letter, the election commission sought clarifications on the unilateral announcement last week of the rural poll schedule and raised the issue of reorganisation of the districts. The poll panel has been pitching for three-phase elections.
Incidentally, all three districts slated to go to the hustings in the second phase are Congress strongholds.
The Congress has described the schedule announced by the state government as “politically motivated”.
But later in the evening Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukerjee announced that 11 districts in south Bengal excluding Murshidabad will hold the polls April 26, and the remaining districts April 30.
However, the revised schedule announced by the state government ensures that the elections in the three districts where the Congress has a strong base are held on the same day.
In the evening, the state government sent a letter to the commission spelling out its changed stand.
The State Election Commission welcomed the revised schedule but said central paramilitary troopers needed to be deployed to ensure smooth conduct of the poll process beginning with the day of nomination filing.
“We have received a letter. We will decide on the issue Thursday after considering all the views,” said a commission official.
The eventful day began with West Bengal State Election Commissioner Meera Pandey calling on Governor M.K. Narayanan at the Raj Bhavan and apprising him of its position in the wake of the state government’s announcement of the poll schedule last week.
There were hectic parleys too in the seat of power Writers’ Buildings as Chief Minister Banerjee, Mukherjee, senior bureaucrats held several rounds of discussions on the issue.
Mukheree met the media twice.
During his first interaction, the minister maintained a belligerent stand, saying 10 and half pages of the 11-page missive from the election commission was “irrelevant and impractical” and the drafting seemed to have been done by a “school boy”.
He alleged that the letter was sent “to create a sensation in the media” and “it was motivated”.
Narayanan, meanwhile, summoned Chief Secretary Sanjay Mitra, who met the state’s first citizen at the Raj Bhavan in the evening.
A couple of hours later, Mukherjee seemed to have softened down a bit, as he announced the reorganisation of the districts holding the polls in the two phases.
“We are always ready to make a climb down. Our responsibility to conduct elections is more than others,” said Mukherjee.
There has been a tug of war between the Commission and the ruling Trinamool Congress over the Panhayat poll schedule with a front-ranking party leader even questioning the impartiality of the panel head Meera Pandey.