On June 23, the Calcutta High Court sought a response from the West Bengal State Election Commission on the anomalous situation concerning the 2023 Panchayat Elections, wherein an astronomical 20,585 withdrawal of nominations has taken place. The BJP Leader of Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly Suvendu Adhikari’s moved the court challenging the State Election Commission’s wilful disobedience of the court’s past orders.
The Calcutta High Court’s Division Bench, comprising Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam and Justice Uday Kumar, heard the case. The court directed the commission to file their affidavit by June 27, 2023 and listed the case for the next hearing on June 28.
The court orally remarked, “We don’t understand how the Commission is being run…the voters themselves are complaining that someone who was desirous of filing nomination was not able and their right of choice is being affected…how is this possible….even, in that case, we have asked for a report…and then it was heard that almost 20,000 nominations have been withdrawn…speaking for myself, the Commission is usually always in touch with the Standing Counsels and they always respond to the orders of the Court and send reports on time…this is not happening…we don’t know how it runs here…”
The contempt application was moved before the court alleging wilful disobedience of the court’s directions, issued vide the court’s order dated June 13 and 15, and the Supreme Court’s order dated June 20. The court’s order concerned the direction to the commission to requisition adequate Central Forces for the conduct of West Bengal Panchayat Elections 2023.
The applicant’s counsel submits that the turns of events would reveal that the commission’s supremacy has been surrendered and the purity of the election process has been compromised. The counsel contended that the court passed the earlier orders, which the commission has allegedly violated, to ensure a “free and fair election and to preserve the purity of election process.”
However, the State Election Commission’s counsel submitted that it has complied with the court’s order dated June 22, wherein the court directed the commission to requisition additional Central Forces after observing that the forces requisitioned were inadequate. The commission submitted that the Central Forces requisitioned are more than 2013 Panchayat Elections conducted in the state, as was directed by the court.
The commission further submitted that the “individual grievances are before this court being heard and decided by the learned Single Benches.”
The applicant’s counsel also submitted that there are petitions filed before the court reporting that about 273 seats in Canning-I Block remain uncontested. The counsel further submitted that the people have moved the court contending that they have the right to choose the candidate, and a prospective candidate cannot be prevented from filing the nominations. The counsel alleged that the State Election Commission had not taken any proactive steps in this regard.
The court noted, “Even the totality of circumstances and that not only the Regular Bench of this court but two Single Benches and one another Division Bench or all being engaged in matters concerning in the ensuing Panchayat Election.”
The court said that to ascertain the State Election Commission’s wilful disobedience of the court’s order would require the commission to file an affidavit. The court said that it has to consider the cumulative circumstances to examine whether the commission has made attempts to make the court’s orders unworkable at different stages of time.
The court said, “Therefore, we are of the view that strict monitoring is required to be done in the matter for which affidavit has to be filed after which the court will consider as to whether there has been willful disobedience of the directions issued by the court in all the three orders and such other matters.”
The court has further directed the State Election Commission to answer the prayers on merits without raising technical objections, as the court has observed in past orders which are incidental and ancillary to each other. The court said that the object of passing such an order is to “ensure free and fair election and to preserve the purity of the election process.”
274 Seats Uncontested in Canning-I Block
The applicant in the above case referred to a case about the anomalous situation wherein 273 (274) seats remain uncontested in Canning-I Block. The application was referred to the writ petition moved before the court [WPA (P) 316/2023] wherein the petitioner argued that he is entitled as a voter to select the candidate by casting his franchisee; however, he is prevented from doing so as the candidates are being prevented from filing their nominations.
Notably, the Calcutta High Court’s Division Bench, comprising Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam and Justice Ajay Kumar Gupta, heard the case on June 23. The court said, “Prima facie, we are of the view that there appears to be some anomalous situation in Canning – I Block.”
The court said, “Be that as it may, we are examining a larger issue as to whether is it possible and feasible that 274 seats can remain uncontested and there is not even a single person, who is desirous of filing his nomination for anyone of the seats in the 10 Gram Panchayats, 30 Panchayat Samities and 3 Zilla Parishads.”
The court then directed the State Election Commission to file a report on the issues highlighted in the case, and that the court would decide then as to what further orders are required to be passed. The court directed the commission to file to report by June 26, listing the next hearing on the same date.