The Supreme Court on Thursday stayed the Calcutta high court order asking the West Bengal poll panel to accept nominations through e-mail for the rural polls, describing as worrying both the electronic filing and nearly 17,000 candidates of the ruling TMC winning unopposed.
Simultaneously, the State Election Commission announced that the panchayat polls will be held on May 14, ending days of uncertainty.
The apex court, while refusing to stay the poll process, said the elections should be conducted in a 'free and fair' manner.
The top court also directed the SEC not to declare those candidates who have won unopposed as winners.
The ruling Trinamool Congress welcomed the order, saying the Opposition's intention to postpone the polls has been 'defeated'.
But the bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra did not agree with the submissions that the poll process was vitiated and should be stayed, observing there were a plethora of judgments which held that once the poll process has begun no court can interfere with the process. The bench also comprised Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud.
"Once the election process starts, it cannot be interfered with. I have said this in one of the cases in the morning also," the CJI reiterated.
The SEC on Thursday moved the apex court challenging the Calcutta HC order on May 8 directing it to accept the nominations of candidates who have filed their papers electronically within the stipulated time for the elections.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the apex court order retaining the panchayat election date in the state on May 14 as per the earlier schedule, was good for the people.
The counsel for Communist Party of India-Marxist and the Bharatiya Janata Party alleged that several of their candidates were not allowed to file nomination papers, which has led to 34 per cent candidates, belonging to the ruling Trinamool Congress, winning unopposed.
"The high court order has read the Information Technology (IT) Act into the Representation of People(RP) Act. Both things are worrying -- the high court order directing the State Election Commission to accept nominations through e-mails and 34 per cent candidates winning unopposed," the bench said.
"There shall be a stay on the Calcutta High Court order," it said, adding that the state poll panel "shall not declare the results" of those candidates who have won unopposed.
However, senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, representing the state poll panel, opposed the plea regarding the winning candidates and said this was not part of the litigation.
Describing the high court order on nomination papers as 'the most absurd kind of order', Dwivedi said the nomination papers are filed before the returning officer (RO) and candidates sign the documents. After such filings, the RO scrutinises the nomination papers and either accepts or rejects them on merits.
Here, the high court simply asked the state poll panel to accept the nomination papers, he said, adding, "What will happen to the procedures prescribed under the law".
The bench also made it clear that the 'singular legal question' was whether the nomination papers can be filed electronically and can the IT Act be read into the RP Act.
The high court had directed the SEC to accept the nominations of those candidates named by the CPI-M who had filed their papers through e-mails within the stipulated time before 3 pm on April 23. The CPI(M) has claimed that many of its candidates were prevented from filing nominations by Trinamool Congress.
SEC secretary Nilanjan Shandilya told reporters in Kolkata that the counting of votes will take place on May 17 and repolling, if any, will be held the day before.
The TMC alleged that the three opposition parties--BJP, Left Front and Congress--have ganged up against the ruling party in order to stop the developmental work in the state.
"The people of the state want to cast their votes. We have full faith on the people of the state. But the opposition BJP, Left Front and Congress were afraid of facing the election as they knew that they don't have the mass support," TMC party secretary general Partha Chatterjee told reporters in Kolkata.
On the SC's bar on declaration of unopposed candidates as winners, Chatterjee said the matter will heard again on July 3.
"The tenure of this Panchayat ends in August. So there is nothing to worry about. We will abide by the court order".
The Calcutta high court earlier in the day expressed the hope that the polls will be free, fair and peaceful whenever it is held and left it to the government and State Election Commission to decide on security requirements.