Bengal sits on year-old pledge

New Delhi, March 26: The Mamata Banerjee government's unilateral notification of the panchayat poll dates runs counter to an assurance it had given the Centre to reform Bengal's electoral laws and strengthen the state election commission's hand.

Most states, including Bengal, had last year agreed to make the changes, suggested by a Union panchayati raj ministry task force, to improve the functioning of state election commissions, a senior ministry official told The Telegraph.

Union panchayati raj minister V.K.C. Deo had met the states' panchayat and municipal affairs ministers, their department secretaries and state election commissioners on February 27 last year to discuss the panel's recommendations.

After Bengal and most other states agreed to implement the recommendations, "the ministry formally sent the recommendations to the states for action", the ministry source said.

The task force, headed by additional secretary Hrushikesh Panda, had suggested that the powers given to the state election commissions by Article 243K of the Constitution must be replicated in the states' laws and rules.

Article 243K vests with the state election commissions the conduct of all rural and civic elections and the superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of electoral rolls.

One of the panel's recommendations was that the responsibility for holding the elections, including notification of the dates, be vested with the state election commissions alone.

However, the West Bengal Panchayat Elections Act allows the state government to issue its own notification (although it becomes official only if the state election commission issues a matching notification). Sources said Bengal had failed to amend this provision in the 13 months since the Delhi meeting.

Bengal panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee, however, said the state government had "not received any recommendations" from the Union panchayati raj ministry.

"We have not received any recommendations from the Centre. Our act says the government will notify the dates in consultation with the state election commission. We are doing that," Mukherjee told The Telegraph.

A Bengal government official, however, confirmed to this newspaper that Bengal had attended the February 2012 meeting.

George Mathew, chairman of the Institute of Social Sciences, a Delhi-based NGO working on panchayati raj issues, said many state election commissions were handicapped by their home states' laws.

"They should get the entire responsibility for holding panchayat elections, including the notification of dates," he said. Supreme Court lawyer Rajeev Dhawan supported the view.

The task force also touched on subjects such as the financial powers, funds and manpower of the state election commissions and the practice of paid news carried by the media. Among its other recommendations were:

A state election commissioner should be given the status of a high court judge so that he can easily procure the cooperation of key officials such as the chief secretary, director-general of police and finance secretary.

A state election commission should be selected by a collegium of the chief minister, state leader of the Opposition and the Assembly Speaker.

State election commissions should be able to utilise their funds according to their priorities without having to seek the approval of the state finance department at every step.