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Will EC Risk Constitutional crisis in Bengal?

July 15, 2021 12:42 IST
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'The EC's role in this is questionable. What is the reason for this delay? Are they waiting for instructions?'
Payal Singh Mohanka reports.

IMAGE: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addresses a press conference in Kolkata, July 7, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

Clouds of uncertainty loom over the political firmament of Bengal.

In about three-and-a-half months Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee needs to get elected as a member of the legislative assembly through a bypoll.

While her party, the Trinamool Congress, swept the assembly polls this May with 213 seats, Mamata lost the election in Nandigram by a slim margin to Suvendu Adhikari, her former protege who had left her to join the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Banerjee has moved the Calcutta high court contesting her defeat while Adhikari has appealed to the Supreme Court to transfer her petition to a court in another state.

According to the Constitution, a person can occupy a ministerial position for up to six months without getting elected to a state legislature or Parliament.

Banerjee needs to get elected to the assembly before November 5 as she was sworn in as chief minister on May 5,

On May 21, state minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay resigned from the Bhowanipore constituency to facilitate the chief minister's re-election from this seat.

In the assembly election, Chattopadhyay won Bhowanipore by nearly 28,000 votes.

The TMC had fielded him from this seat after Banerjee decided to take on Adhikari in Nandigram.

Interestingly, the TMC supremo had won this seat in 2011 through a by-election as she was a member of Parliament when her party came to power. She retained the seat in the 2016 elections.

Irate TMC members accuse the Election Commission of delaying the bypoll now that the Covid situation seems to have eased.

The Election Commission is duty bound to conduct elections before the six-month period runs out.

This has been laid down in the Representation of the People Act 1951 which is an act of the Parliament of India under which the Election Commission has been formed and the elections conducted.

There is a great deal of speculation on what could happen if the elections are not conducted within the given timeframe.

There could be a Constitutional crisis in which the chief minister would have to step down and nominate one of her loyalists in her place while she could be the power behind the throne.

Such a violation of the rules by the EC -- if it occurs -- would raise issues about its sense of fairness and fingers would point towards the ruling party at the Centre.

Banerjee could emerge as an even more powerful leader and this could also get her some sympathy for facing this undeserved ignominy.

There is confusion over the possibilities that might emerge.

Some assert that 'technically' Banerjee could step down even for a few minutes, then take a fresh oath and continue for another six months!

If the EC chooses not to or is unable to hold elections, there is a possibility that it could approach the President for an ordinance to be issued stating that owing to its inability to hold the elections in six months time, the restrictions which apply to those who have been sworn in without having been elected should also be extended until the elections are held.

In the six states in the country, which have an Upper House or the state's legislative council, there is the option of an unelected person becoming an MLC, much like Dr Manmohan Singh who became a Rajya Sabha member after becoming prime minister.

However, West Bengal does not have an Upper House. Coincidentally, this was an issue during Didi's campaign and the state assembly a week ago sanctioned the resurrection of the state's legislative council after a period of 52 years.

The state BJP has opposed this move. Her critics say it is being done to ensure a backdoor entry to the legislature for those who lost the assembly elections.

Statistical data reveals that the Covid situation in Bengal is similar to what it was when the first phase of the assembly elections were held at the end of March.

In fact during the eighth and last phase the number of daily cases in the state had shot up to almost 20,000 a day, today there are less than 1,300 cases a day.

A short election campaign with the entire process wrapped up within six weeks could be considered.

Unless in the weeks ahead medical evidence reveals that Bengal is in the grip of a third wave, the EC would have no legitimate reason to delay the polls.

A political observer in the state says, "The EC's role in this is questionable. What is the reason for this delay? Are they waiting for instructions?"

"Why are they not being able to make up their mind on an issue which has a foregone conclusion? The mandate that the CM has received is not going to change in two months."

"She isn't going to lose. That is the writing on the wall and to not honour that mandate is not honouring democracy."

While the BJP does not cease to raise the issue of Uttarakhand's Tirath Singh Rawat who resigned two months before his six-month period ended, his case is different.

The state has elections next year so under the rules bypolls don't need to be conducted.

BJP Spokesperson Shishir Bajoria points out, "The TMC is too fixated on the by-election in Bhowanipore. Before the panchayat elections in May next year, municipal elections need to be held. They are long overdue, even before Covid struck."

"It is the state government that has to fix the date. It is the first time in the history of the country that a defeated chief minister is at the helm."

While charges and counter-charges are exchanged, there are many who believe that the by-elections will be held within the required timeframe.

Jawhar Sircar, retired bureaucrat says, "There are some things that are inviolable. There is no chance of Mamata Banerjee being unseated. From day one the BJP has not accepted the poll results."

"This is not childishness or petulance, but a serious psychological disorder where you don't accept the election result," adds Sircar.

The next few weeks will probably reveal what the EC has in mind. Will it risk a Constitutional crisis? Or will better sense prevail?

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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