Calcutta high court rejects plea seeking stay on Kolkata municipal polls

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The Calcutta high court on Wednesday refused to stay elections to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) due on December 19, but directed the West Bengal government and the state election commission (SEC) to take measures for holding polls in other civic bodies at the earliest and in the least possible number of phases.

“…we are of the opinion that the prayer made by the counsel for the petitioner for staying the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections cannot be accepted and is hereby declined,” said the division bench of chief justice Prakash Shrivastava and justice Rajarshi Bhardwaj, while rejecting the plea filed by Bharatiya Janata Party state vice-president Pratap Banerjee.

Banerjee’s plea also sought elections in state’s 120-odd municipal corporations and municipalities on a single day.

The hearing on the petition ended on December 10, but the court had reserved its order. On December 6, the SEC told the court that municipal elections in the remaining 22 districts (which have 111 municipal bodies) will be held in six to eight phases by May 2022. The SEC and the state government also told the court that dates for the remaining municipal polls could be fixed later, taking into account the spread of the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 and school board examinations.

The bench on Wednesday directed the SEC and the state government to inform the court on a tentative plan for holding the remaining civic elections on the next date of hearing on December 23.

“Keeping in view the observations made above, respondent Nos. 2 and 3 (West Bengal government and SEC respectively) are directed to disclose to this court, without any further delay, minimum phases in which the elections for the remaining municipal corporations/municipalities in the state will be held and the tentative time schedule giving earliest dates for holding such elections. We expect that respondent Nos. 2 and 3 will take a decision in this regard keeping in mind their responsibility to uphold democratic principles and to carry out the mandate of the Constitution,” the bench said in its order.

The BJP filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking the deployment of central forces during the elections but the apex court asked it to approach the high court.

The legal sparring between the two parties bitterly fought state elections, which the TMC won, and violence that followed in which, the BJP claims, many of its supporters were targeted.

During the last hearing on December 10, advocates for the petitioner cited Supreme Court judgments and argued that electronic voting machines (EVM) containing voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) are mandatory but these will not be used in the KMC election according to the affidavit earlier filed by the SEC.

Senior advocate Jayanta Mitra, who represented the SEC said EVMs given to the state by the Election Commission of India for the municipal polls did not have the provision for VVPAT.

“The Honourable Supreme Court had clearly observed that the existing system is not doubted by the court so far as fairness and integrity is concerned but had observed about increasing the machines which are subjected to verification of paper trail to reasonable number. These judgments are not relating to the local bodies elections and in none of these judgments it has been held that the elections should not be held if the VVPATs are not used,” the high court observed.

The order further stated: “If the number of machines which are subjected to verification of paper trail can be increased to a reasonable number, it would lead to greater satisfaction amongst not only the political parties but the entire electorate of the country. This is what the court should endeavour and the exercise, therefore, should be to find a viable number of machines that should be subjected to the verification of VVPAT paper trails keeping in mind the infrastructure and the manpower difficulties pointed out by the deputy election commissioner. In this regard, the proximity to the election schedule announced by the ECI must be kept in mind.”

Though the court rejected the BJP’s demands, the party’s national vice-president, Dilip Ghosh, said the legal exercise was necessary. “People of Bengal have to move the court for everything because they have no other option. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) never allows free and fair elections,” Ghosh said.

TMC leader and state transport minister Firhad Hakim welcomed the court’s order. “The BJP moved the court because it knows it will not win a single seat in Kolkata.”

With the polls barely four days away, the TMC announced that chief minister Mamata Banerjee would campaign for the candidates in east Kolkata on Wednesday evening.

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