The Calcutta high court on Friday directed the State Election Commission (SEC) to issue a fresh notification to allow nominations for panchayat polls in West Bengal, quashing its April 10 order cancelling extension of the deadline for filing nominations.
The high court, which had earlier stayed the election process, directed the commission to reschedule the dates for panchayat election process and accordingly conduct the polls.
Opposition parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which had moved the high court against the SEC, welcomed the verdict and termed it as a 'defeat' of the ruling Trinamool Congress.
However, an unfazed West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wlecomed the order and voiced hope that the elections will be held as early as possible.
In the 35-page order, Justice Subrata Talukdar held that the petitions by the BJP and other opposition parties, which were opposed by both the State Election Commission and the ruling Trinamool Congress, were maintainable.
The court asked the SEC to issue a fresh notification extending the date for filing nominations.
The panchayat elections in West Bengal were to be held in three phases from May 1 to May 5 and the counting of votes was scheduled on May 8. The tenure of the present panchayat in the state will end in August.
The election dates to the three-tier panchayat in the state will be postponed to later dates, as the West Bengal Panchayat Act 2003 provides that there has to be at least 21 days' gap between the last date for nomination and the date fixed for the poll.
The nomination process for the panchayat polls ended on April 9, but it was extended by a day by the SEC the same evening following a Supreme Court order on a BJP petition alleging that opposition party candidates were being prevented from filing nominations.
The West Bengal government and the Trinamool Congress had objected to the extension by the SEC, which had cited a Supreme Court direction to 'allay apprehensions of intending candidates' in its notification extending the nomination process by a day.
The notification, however, was withdrawn by the SEC on April 10 morning following objections by the state government and the ruling Trinamool Congress.
The BJP again moved the Supreme Court on April 11 and was directed to approach the high court with its grievances over the deadline for filing nominations.
The BJP moved the high court challenging the withdrawal and Justice Talukdar stayed the election process on April 12.
Questioning the maintainability of the petitions, the SEC and the TMC had moved a division bench of the high court, but it sent the matter back to the bench of Justice Talukdar.
Apart from the BJP, the CPI-M, the Party of Democratic Socialism and the Congress too had moved the high court separately challenging the SEC's decision.
The commission and the ruling Trinamool Congress opposed the petitions claiming that these were not maintainable since the election process had started.
Defending the commission's decision to withdraw the extension the very next morning on April 10, the SEC secretary had said that an authority which has power to issue an order also has the power to rescind.
Alleging that the SEC had acted at the behest of TMC, the CPI-M had submitted before the court that the withdrawal of the notification extending the date for notification is illegal and stands to be nullified and the election postponed.
Representing the ruling TMC, its vice-president Kalyan Banerjee told the court during pleadings that under Article 243(O) of the Constitution, no panchayat election shall be called in question except by an election petition as per law made by the legislature of that state.
He stated that the West Bengal Panchayat Act of 2003 provides that in case of any dispute in relation to panchayat polls, petitions can be moved before the civil court within 30 days after completion of election process.
Banerjee, also a TMC Lok Sabha MP, asserted that how elections would be conducted is the prerogative of the SEC and cannot be interfered into by the high court.
A senior lawyer himself, Banerjee appeared in-person as the party vice-president, owing to an ongoing ceasework at the high court.
The CPI-M was represented by Bikash Bhattacharya who is also a senior advocate, while the commission was represented in the court by its secretary Nilanjan Shandilya.
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