Mamata Banerjee Is Desperate For Bypolls In Bengal, But Election Commission Has Grounds To Reject Her Demand

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Aug 26, 2021 05:09 PM +05:30 IST
Mamata Banerjee Is Desperate For Bypolls In Bengal, But Election Commission Has Grounds To Reject Her DemandBengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee
  • Mamata Banerjee has a little over two months to get elected to the state assembly, failing which she will have to step down as the chief minister.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee desperately wants the Election Commission of India (ECI) to hold bypolls to seven assembly constituencies in Bengal at the earliest.

This is because she has a little over two months to get elected to the state assembly, failing which she will have to step down as the chief minister.

Banerjee was sworn in as the Chief Minister on 5 May and, as per Article 164(4) of the Indian Constitution, she has to get elected to the state legislature within six months — by 4 November.

She had contested the assembly elections from Nandigram and lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Suvendu Adhikari.

The Trinamool chief has been urging the ECI to hold bypolls to seven seats in the state for quite some time. She reiterated this request earlier this week.

According to Banerjee, the Covid-19 situation is “completely under control” in Bengal and, thus, there can be no reason for not conducting bypolls in the state.

The ECI has sought opinions from all the political parties in Bengal and invited written submissions by 31 August.

Banerjee plans to contest the bypolls from the Bhabanipur seat in South Kolkata. The seat was won by Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, who defeated his nearest BJP rival in the recent assembly polls.

Bhabanipur had been represented by Mamata Banerjee (Kalighat, where she resides, falls within this assembly segment) since 2011. But when Adhikari, who was her close lieutenant and key strategist in Nandigram during the anti-land acquisition stir there in 2006, defected to the BJP and announced his candidature from Nandigram, she impulsively declared that she would take on Adhikari from there.

Banerjee's motive was to take the political and electoral battle to the BJP camp and prove a point by defeating Adhikari. She had assumed that she would win from Nandigram and deal a huge blow to Adhikari.

Had she won from Nandigram, she would have effectively demonstrated that it is only ‘brand Mamata’ that counts in Bengal.

Banerjee would also have contested from Bhabanipur, to be on the safer side. But the BJP threw her a challenge by asking her to contest from Nandigram alone if she was confident of winning the seat. There was no way that Banerjee could not have accepted the challenge.

Ultimately, she lost to Adhikari, but took over as the Chief Minister. She got Chattopadhyay, a trusted aide and the current Power Minister, to vacate the Bhabanipur seat so that she would be able to contest and win the seat in the bypolls necessitated by Chattopadhyay’s resignation from the seat.

Along with Bhabanipur, by-elections are due in six other seats: Jangipur and Shamshergunj in Murshidabad district, Khardaha in North 24 Parganas, Dinhata in Cooch Behar, Shantipur in Nadia, and Gosaba in South 24 Parganas.

The ECI deferred polls in the two constituencies in Murshidabad district following the deaths of two candidates on the eve of the elections there.

The bypoll in Khardaha has been necessitated by the death of Trinamool candidate Kajal Sinha after the elections were held but before the declaration of results. Sinha had won the seat.

The BJP’s Nisith Pramanik, who is also the Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) from Cooch Behar, had won the Dinhata seat (Dinhata is an assembly segment in Cooch Behar). But he resigned as the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) to remain a Lok Sabha MP and is now the Union Minister of State for Home.

It's a similar case with the Santipur Assembly seat, which was won by the BJP’s Jagannath Sarkar, who is also the Ranaghat Lok Sabha MP. Sarkar gave up his assembly seat to remain a Lok Sabha MP.

Trinamool’s Jayanta Naskar won the Gosaba Assembly seat, but died of Covid-19 in mid-June. In fact, the deaths of Sinha (Khardaha) and the two candidates in Jangipur and Shamshergunj were due to Covid-19.

While Banerjee’s desperation to get elected to the assembly and thus retain her chair is understandable, the ECI has enough grounds to dismiss her demand.

Though the number of Covid-19-positive cases in Bengal has registered a sharp decline over the last two months, a third wave is expected.

That is why Banerjee has not lifted all the curbs imposed due to the pandemic. There are restrictions on the movement of people, educational institutions remain closed, offices and business establishments are not functioning normally, and even local train services remain suspended.

The Bengal government has not even approved air and long-distance rail services to resume fully. Many pandemic-induced curbs remain in place and Banerjee is on record saying that the curbs are necessary since the pandemic situation is still grave and a third wave is expected.

But there is a more forceful argument against holding the bypolls anytime soon. The Mamata Banerjee government has repeatedly put off elections for the 107 civic bodies, including six municipal corporations, in the state because of the pandemic.

Civic elections have been due for more than one and half years since the terms of the 107 municipalities and municipal corporations, including the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), expired in early 2020.

Civic polls are conducted by the State Election Commission, which is controlled by the state government and functions as per the Chief Minister’s diktats.

The State Election Commission has cited the pandemic for not holding polls to the 107 civic bodies. The state government has been running the civic bodies by proxy through administrators who, in violation of norms, are ruling party members and not state government officials.

In December last year, the state government had declared its intent to hold the civic polls in March this year ahead of the assembly elections. But the state government backtracked on its decision citing the pandemic at a time when the first wave had subsided and the second wave was yet to manifest.

The opposition parties had said that the Trinamool Congress was running scared of holding civic polls fearing defeat. A defeat in the civic elections would affect the outcome of the assembly elections, which is why Banerjee was shying away from holding civic polls in March, the opposition claimed.

“If civic polls have not been held for more than one and a half years due to the pandemic, how can assembly by-elections be held? The state government should hold municipal elections first and then assembly bypolls can be held,” asserted Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh.

The BJP and other opposition parties are likely to cite the non-conduct of civic polls in the state for over one and a half years and many pandemic-induced curbs remaining in place to argue against holding assembly bypolls anytime soon.

If the ECI goes by the opposition's argument, the Trinamool will have only itself to blame for the crisis that it will face. Citing the pandemic to delay civic polls for more than one and half years and also keeping pandemic-induced curbs in place and then declaring that the pandemic situation is “completely under control” amounts to doublespeak.

The Trinamool has started saying that assembly bypolls should be held first and only after that will it hold civic polls. But that cuts no ice since civic polls have been due for long while assembly bypolls have been due for just about three months.

The BJP also cites the case of Bihar, where panchayat elections to elect over 2.55 lakh representatives to rural bodies will be held in 11 phases from 24 September to 12 December.

“If Bihar can hold panchayat polls, there can be no justification for Bengal delaying municipal polls,” Ghosh said.

The assembly bypolls have to be held in September itself since the Durga Puja and other religious festivals like the Lakshmi Puja fall in October and elections cannot be held in the midst of festivities.

But for elections to be held in September, the ECI has to issue the notification for conducting the by-elections by next week. As per the rules, the notification has to be issued at least 24 days before the date of polling.

At least 10 days are earmarked for filing and withdrawing nominations and other formalities and another two weeks at least have to be allowed for campaigning.

Given the history of poll violence in Bengal and the notorious legacy of ruling parties in Bengal rigging polls, the ECI has to make elaborate arrangements for deploying central forces and ensuring the conduct of free and fair elections in the state.

All that is a tough and time-consuming exercise and may not be possible to undertake and complete by the end of September.

Opposition parties would not mind if bypolls are not held by November and Mamata Banerjee has to step down as the Chief Minister of the state.

She will not be able to nominate her nephew and anointed heir — Abhishek Banerjee — to succeed her, since Abhishek is a Lok Sabha MP and she will not want her party’s strength in the Lok Sabha to decline by even one.

And being suspicious by nature, she would not be comfortable to put even a ‘trusted’ aide or proxy on the chief minister’s chair for fear of that person turning truant and backstabbing her.

Opposition parties are looking forward to this prospect and have dismissed the Trinamool’s contention that the state would be faced with a ‘Constitutional crisis’ if bypolls are not held immediately.

Bengal, they counter, will not face any Constitutional crisis if bypolls are not held and the results not declared by 4 November. It is the Trinamool, and Mamata Banerjee personally, who will face a grave crisis. And the crisis will be of her own making.

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