West Bengal: Pleas despatched again to HC single bench, ballot course of in limbo

KOLKATA: Bengal’s fraught 2018 panchayat poll process is going to stay in court for at least one more day as a division bench of the sent all the petitions, filed by the State Election Commission and several political parties, back to a single-judge bench of the same court on Monday.

Justice Subrata Talukdar will now hear the petitions on Tuesday, lengthening the shadow of doubt on whether the first ballot can be cast on May 1 — the first day of the three-day vote process — which is barely a fortnight away.

The opposition parties have alleged that widespread intimidation and violence have prevented many of their candidates from filing nomination papers; the SEC has pleaded for an immediate withdrawal of the Calcutta HC’s interim stay on the nomination-filing phase, which will allow resumption of the entire election process.

These petitions and counter-petitions, together, have now travelled between the Supreme Court in Delhi and two benches of the Calcutta HC (Justice Talukdar’s court and a division bench of Justice Biswanath Somadder and Justice Arindam Mukherjee) for one whole week. The trial court on Tuesday will hear petitions filed by the SEC, Trinamool’s Kalyan Banerjee, BJP’s Pratap Banerjee, CPM’s Rabin Deb, Congress’s Adhir Chowdhury and PDS’s Samir Putatunda.

The Trinamool Congress, including CM , has blamed the opposition parties’ “organizational weaknesses” for their inability to field candidates in all seats. More than 13,000 of the 50,000-odd gram panchayat seats have seen just one nomination each.

The Calcutta HC division bench held on Monday that the trial court had passed an interim order, but did not come up with a final order. It also observed that the trial court had initially passed the interim stay on the nomination-filing process till April 24, but had later brought it forward to April 16. “The court has not shut you out. Instead, it has brought the hearing forward,” Justice Somadder said.

The division bench, allaying the SEC’s fears that the delay might throw the entire process off schedule, asked the single-judge bench to take up the hearing expeditiously on a daily basis while keeping in mind the SC’s April 9 directives to the SEC. The apex court last Monday directed the state election commissioner to address grievances of candidates unable to file their nominations in accordance with law.

The court battle started last week after the SEC on Tuesday scrapped its own decision to extend the nomination-filing process by a day. The matter on Monday stood exactly where it was last Thursday, when Justice Talukdar stayed the poll process and asked the SEC to submit a comprehensive report on how it had followed last Monday’s SC directive. “Common sense says it may not be possible for the SEC to hold the first phase of rural on May 1,” senior leader and lawyer Bikash Bhattacharya said.

SEC secretary Nilanjan Shandilya had a bad day in court on Monday. Justice Somadder first asked him whether the SEC was supporting the Trinamool petition, to which Shandilya replied “yes”. The bench then asked him how a constitutional authority like the SEC could support a political party’s petition. Shandillya then corrected himself and submitted that the SEC’s was a separate petition and pleaded with the bench to vacate the stay order because the poll process had come to a halt.

Senior lawyer and Trinamool MP Kalyan Banerjee submitted that he had challenged the writ petition calling in question an ongoing poll process. He argued that it was in conflict with Article 243 of the Constitution. “I will begin my argument on Tuesday, challenging the maintainability of the writ petition,” he said.

Justice Talukdar had dealt with Banerjee’s objection in his Thursday’s interim order. “There may be a legal basis to the argument but this court, at this stage, is of the view that the writ petition is maintainable as it goes to the root of the electoral exercise,” he had held.

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