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West Bengal - A mockery of democracy


The ruling Left Front has rendered the State Election Commission virtually powerless
May 23, 2010 17:35
Tags : West Bengal |SEC |Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) |

 West Bengal - A mockery of democracyBiswanath Chakraborty

Professor of Political Science, Rabindra Bharati University

Often the state governments claim that the elections are being held free and fair in their states. As India is the biggest democratic country, people are expected to participate in elections to strengthen the basics of democracy. But does the same happen when the state is West Bengal? 

Across India, the elections to municipalities, municipal corporations and panchayats are now held under the direct supervision and guidance of the State Election Commission (SEC). The amendments to the Constitution, in late 1990s, paved the way for setting up of the SEC to conduct such elections in all Indian states. And to match the constitutional requirements, West Bengal set up SEC in 1994. Before that Municipal elections were being conducted by the Department of Municipal Affairs of the state government. People of the state are aware of the fact that the elections to local self-governments are not politically one-sided as they are conducted by the SEC. A closer look into the functioning of the SEC and its powers would disclose how the successive Left Front governments have made this pious institution a crippled subordinate office. 

The Article 243 K Clause (III) of the Constitution says, “The Governor of the state shall when so requested by the SEC to make available to the State Election Commission such staff as may be required to discharge of function conferred on the SEC by Clause I.” It means, the SEC would get adequate staff as per requirement to conduct elections to the local self-governments. But the same is not happening in West Bengal. In fact, the West Bengal State Election Commission Act-1994, passed by the state Assembly to set up SEC, has been drafted in such a way that the commission has become toothless. 

The SEC is suffering from lack of staff since its inception. It doesn’t have adequate staff with 30 per cent of the seats vacant. Presently, the SEC is working with total 30 staff members, including Group D staff. It is simply unimaginable for a big state like West Bengal. The SEC has requested the Home Department of state government to fill in its staff and confer the adequate powers divested under the Central Act, but all in vain. The state Act has large anomalies with the Central Act and constitutional amendments. The state has failed to supervise or conduct free and fair elections. As alleged by several quarters, the appointments to the post of State Election Commissioner have always been a political prerogative. They were allotted to those IAS officers or chief secretaries who showed their loyalty to the main constituent of the Left Front. In West Bengal, if you ask a common man about the role of retired senior bureaucrats, namely Tarun Kumar Dutta (first State Election Commissioner), Anish Majumdar, Ajoy Sinha, Ashok Gupta or the present State Election Commissioner Neela Gupta, they will regard them as the staunch supporters of CPI(M). Also, the SEC has been unable to deliver its major responsibilities of supervision, control and deliver during the election period. 

Interestingly, the SEC does not even have the power to decide upon the election date. This power is vested with the state government. According to the state Act, the state government decides upon the date and then ask the SEC to do the job. On the other hand, the SECs of Karnataka, Gujarat or other states have the power to fix the dates. The West Bengal SEC has repeatedly requested the state government to empower them with this right, but the state government is least bothered. 

In fact, the state can not organise votes to all colleges on a single day as it lacks the security staff. But the election to 81 civic bodies that takes place in the whole state is being held on a single day as advised by the government and agreed to by the Opposition. So, maintaining law and order would be a tough job. Even the Left Front chairman Biman Bose fears large scale disturbances during the polls. But the SEC can not do anything as the state act has vested this power also with the state. While the Central Election Commission can arrange security force deployment according to the need, the state can not. It can just refer that to the state government. 

Physical infrastructure of the SEC office is virtually absent. In this era of IT, the SEC office can be termed as an ancient model. No modern communication system has been installed in the office. 

Last comes the power of delimitation of municipal wards. It has happened in all the municipalities that are going to vote on May 30 to elect a new set of councillors. But the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) is an exception as the SEC’s power of delimitation is also subject to state government’s approval. And one can allege that these approvals are subjected to political advantages. As the Left Front desires to retain KMC by hook or crook, the delimitation process will have to wait.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017