Calcutta, Sept. 29: Mamata Banerjee's plan to advance the panchayat polls hit a roadblock today with the Election Commission rejecting a state request to defer the revision of electoral rolls.
The decision goes against the Bengal government's plans to hold the rural polls with the existing voter list. "The commission has decided to continue the rolls revision though we had requested them to put it on hold," chief secretary Samar Ghosh said.
The revision is an annual exercise that starts in October and ends in early January.
Ghosh had written to chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath on Thursday, saying it was difficult for district officials to carry out rolls revision while simultaneously preparing for the rural polls, more so during the festive season.
State secretariat sources, however, said the trigger behind the state's "unusual request" was the chief minister's eagerness to hold the elections ahead of schedule to "capitalise on the reservoir of support before anti-incumbency kicks in".
Even if the polls are held early, the new rural bodies cannot take charge till May 2013, when the panchayats' term ends.
"Trinamul is expected to win more seats and that may create an unprecedented law-and-order problem in some districts, as the winning party candidates would not want to wait to take charge of the panchayats," a senior state official said.
The commission has told the state the revised rolls would be out on January 2 next year, 13 days ahead of schedule.
After the publication of the revised rolls, the government needs to take several steps, such as re-demarcating the constituencies, assigning booths and polling officials, and making security arrangements. This takes 33 to 35 days, a former panchayat department official said.
Only after this can the polls be notified. A further 25 to 45 days are needed for filing of nominations, withdrawals, scrutiny of candidature and other processes. So, if the revised rolls are out on January 2, the earliest the polls can be held is March.
"That's not possible because board exams are held between February and April," an official said.
Some Bengal officials today tried to put up a brave face, saying they had a Plan B. They said the polls could be held by the fourth week of January on the basis of the existing rolls if the last date for filing nominations fell within December 31.
For this to happen, the government must race the clock and issue the poll notification by mid-November, barely two days after Diwali (November 13). This will be difficult during the holiday season.
Yesterday, Congress and CPM delegations had met the full bench of the poll panel in Delhi to submit written arguments against the state's request. They argued that the revised rolls were likely to include around 20 lakh new voters, who would be deprived if the polls were conducted with the existing voter list.
"Such requests (for deferring the rolls revision) can be granted only if all parties in the state agree. However, two of the main stakeholders opposed the proposal. We have to be fair, above all," a Nirvachan Sadan source told The Telegraph this evening.