The three-tier panchayat polls in West Bengal, seen as a litmus test ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, will be held on July 8.
State Election Commissioner Rajiva Sinha on Thursday said that the village council elections will be held on a single day, with the deadline for filing nominations set for June 15. The votes will be counted on July 11.
The opposition parties alleged that the time given for filing nominations is not enough as a huge number of candidates will have to file nominations for over 70,000 seats in just seven days, a contention mocked by the ruling Trinamool Congress.
Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee conceded that the elections, which were scheduled in May, were delayed.
"The panchayat polls are scheduled for July 8. The last date for filing nominations is June 15. The deadline for withdrawal of nominations is June 20," Sinha said in a press conference in New Delhi.
During the state's three-tier Panchayat elections, there will be contests in 928 seats across 22 Zilla Parishads, 9,730 Panchayat Samiti seats, and 63,229 Gram Panchayats seats.
Around 5.67 crore people are eligible to vote in the elections.
Sinha did not directly address whether the elections would be conducted under the supervision of central forces, as demanded by opposition parties.
"The state possesses an adequate police force to ensure fair and transparent elections. We should have complete trust in the state police," he stated.
In 2013, the panchayat polls were held with central forces stationed at every polling booth in the state. Despite their deployment, the TMC, which had been in power for two years at that time, won over 85 per cent of the seats, with the opposition alleging malpractices.
Asked about the opposition parties' concerns that the rural polls might witness violence as was the case in the 2018 panchayat polls, Sinha exuded confidence that the elections will be peaceful.
"Why should I doubt whether the elections will be peaceful or not? We are confident that the elections will be peaceful and fair," asserted the SEC who was appointed on Wednesday.
In the 2018 rural polls, the TMC won 90 per cent of the Panchayat seats in the state and all 22 Zilla Parishads. However, these elections were marred by widespread violence and malpractices, with the opposition alleging they were prevented from filing nominations in several seats across the state.
Sinha dismissed a question regarding announcement of the election date without an all-party meeting, stating that there was "no such rule that dates cannot be announced without an all-party meeting."
The ruling TMC dismissed the demand to deploy central forces as "unreasonable."
"The Trinamool Congress is prepared for the Panchayat polls. The opposition will witness the party's support. In no state, rural polls are conducted with the deployment of central forces. So why should Bengal be an exception? The demand is unrealistic and irrational," stated TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh.
Mocking the opposition for complaining about lack of time to file nominations, Ghosh said, "If they can't find candidates, we will provide them with one."
The opposition BJP criticised the unilateral announcement by the SEC as "murder of democracy" and questioned the feasibility of filing nominations for over 70,000 seats within a span of just seven days.
"For the first time ever, the Panchayat Elections have been announced unilaterally without convening a single all-party meeting at the block levels, district levels, or at state level," Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari tweeted.
The BJP leader expressed concerns about the lack of dialogue regarding the security measures for the upcoming single-phase elections.
He also claimed that the SEC intends to work like a frontal organisation of the TMC.
"Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and State Election Commissioner Rajiva Sinha will be held responsible for any casualty resulting from potential election-related violence due to this hasty declaration and lack of reasonable diligence," he added.
State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was sceptical about whether the polls would be free and fair.
“We have seen how elections are held under the TMC regime using the state police. We have witnessed loot of people's mandate during the 2018 panchayat elections,” he said.
Communist Party of India-Marxist state secretary Mohammed Salim congratulated newly-appointed SEC Rajiva Sinha for promptly announcing the panchayat elections within a day of his taking over, while demanding that the constitutional body be as alert and take prompt action till the elections on July 8.
"We had expected such a hurried announcement and were prepared for it," he said.
Salim said that to ensure a free and fair election, an ecosystem has to be created to ensure that the police administration, general administration and the election machinery are impartial.
With most of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal having rural and semi-rural areas administered by panchayats, the results of the panchayat polls are considered to be an indicator of which way the state will vote in the 2024 general elections.