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Election Commission's decision to use Article 324 in West Bengal severe indictment of Mamata Banerjee's rule

Mamata Banerjee's extraordinary tirade against the Election Commission of India on Wednesday night is just one more indication of her callous disregard for the Constitution and its provisions. The Election Commission's decision to curtail campaigning in West Bengal by 24 hours applies to all the parties, but Mamata's vitriol against the Constitutional body indicates that she has correctly diagnosed the ECI measure as a resounding slap on the face of West Bengal government and an indictment of the way state's administrative machinery has been subverted into a party functionary unit.

West Bengal has been suffering from this disease since the Left Front regime but under Mamata's Trinamool Congress it has mutated into a more virulent strain. In fact, the only quibble with the ECI's decision is that it is a tad too lenient on a chief minister who openly threatens to take "inch by inch revenge" against political rivals. So vicious is the political climate in Bengal that spokespersons of the ruling party threatened "war" against rivals during ongoing TV debates.

At times on Wednesday, Mamata's irrational reaction and wild allegations against the ECI, berating of even the Supreme Court (not to speak of outbursts against Narendra Modi and Amit Shah) raised questions whether she is aware that a chief minister must conform to certain standards, rules, protocols and proprieties expected from the office.

 Election Commissions decision to use Article 324 in West Bengal severe indictment of Mamata Banerjees rule

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

As a Constitutional authority in charge of administering "free and fair polls" in India, the ECI has been invested with powers that allow it to take a wide range of actions necessary to achieve its objective. Article 324 of the Indian Constitution lays down that "Superintendence, direction and control of elections to be vested in an Election Commission".

Due to the extraordinary mandate of ensuring the sanctity of the election process, the ECI has the right to exercise its plenary powers and issue instructions that it may deem fit including cancellation or postponement of election or acting against/penalising candidates. These actions have time and again been upheld by the court.

The judiciary generally adopts a 'non-interference' policy in decisions taken by the ECI (see here and here for recent examples). This has caused much heartburn among some political leaders who frequently knock on the doors of the Supreme Court challenging the Election Commission's decisions. Mamata, for instance, expressed "anguish" on Wednesday that not even the SC is paying heed to complaints against the Election Commission, whom she accused of working in favour of the BJP.

During her rant against the ECI on Wednesday, Mamata accused it of being "filled with RSS people" and "working under the instruction of the BJP and Modi and Shah", before posing the question: "What does the EC think, they can make Modi win like this?" The Bengal chief minister did not clarify the basis of her allegations.

Her brazen defence of Bengal's political climate, even as the state witnessed sustained violence through all the six phases of Lok Sabha elections, reflect an attitude of desperation that may have crept into the Trinamool camp due to the realisation that BJP has fast developed into a worthy challenger.

To a certain extent, the BJP has benefitted from a presidential mode of elections where the mandate is perceived to be for or against the prime minister. This has allowed the BJP to paper over its organisational lacunae with the aura of 'Brand Modi' and some amount of counter-polarisation among the Hindus against Mamata's perceived minority appeasement policy. The BJP may be bereft of these benefits during Assembly elections but, for now, this is cold comfort for Mamata who can feel the 'Jai Shree Ram' drumbeats getting louder and more confident.

In her Wednesday's reaction, therefore, desperation was writ large.

"There is no such law and order problem in West Bengal that Article 324 can be clamped... This is not the EC's direction; it is the BJP's direction. This is the direction of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The EC's decision is unfair, unethical and politically biased," thundered the Bengal CM, adding, "Are you waiting for Prime Minister Modi to finish his two rallies on Thursday? You could have stopped campaigning from today (Wednesday) evening?"

She also compared the desecration of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's bust with the demolition of Babari Masjid.

"Election Commission is running under the BJP. This is an unprecedented decision. Tuesday's violence was because of Amit Shah. Why has EC not issued a show cause notice to him or sacked him?... BJP goons were brought from outside. They created violence wearing saffron clothes similar to when Babri Masjid was demolished (in 1992)."

The invective against the prime minister was direct and personal.

"Narendra Modi, you cannot take care of your wife. How can you take care of the country? You should be kicked out of the country. My fight is against you and will continue fighting. People of Bengal will give you a befitting reply."

There is some confusion over the ECI's role in implementing the Model Code of Conduct that some Opposition parties and even a section of the media have interpreted as a license for the ECI to play the speech nanny. This is a misleading narrative.

The point of ECI is not to police free speech and act as a nanny, but to ensure elections that are fair and free of violence and rigging. Free speech is anyway subjected to reasonable restrictions. Had that been the case, even Mamata's tirade against the ECI, the prime minister and the BJP president may have fallen foul of Model Code of Conduct. If every bit of speech during elections is censured, then it will be tantamount to the Election Commission of India deciding on the issues over which the issues will be fought. That is not the ECI's terrain.

To ensure that the purity of the electoral process is upheld is where the Election Commission comes in and it was clear from its comments during Wednesday's press conference that the poll body believes that the election process in West Bengal has been compromised.

The ECI, represented by the deputy election commissioner at the news conference, acknowledged that "this was the first time when EC has invoked Article 324 in this manner but it may not be the last in cases of repetition of lawlessness and violence which vitiate the conduct of polls in a peaceful and orderly manner."

In its removal of the principal secretary (home) Atri Bhattacharya and additional director general, CID, Rajeev Kumar, from their postings in state administration, the ECI essentially expressed its lack of confidence in the Mamata Banerjee government in performing its role as mandated by the Constitution. A more uncharitable interpretation could be that ECI reinforced the narrative of TMC's political rivals who have time and again claimed that Bengal has descended into an anarchy under Mamata Banerjee.

The ECI's message warrants concern. It talks of "distinct resistance and non-cooperation from the district administration and district police when it comes to providing level playing field to all candidates for campaigning" and a damning conclusion, in consultation with observers, that "utterances of the AITC (Trinamool Congress) senior leaders on the lines of 'central forces will leave at the end of elections, while we will remain, sends a chilling message among the officers as well as voters alike."

The blurring of the line between party and state is not new. Under Mamata, however, it has become more brazen. Tuesday's incidents during Amit Shah rally give us further indication that Bengal will maintain its regressive tradition of mindless violence during elections - the levels of which will spike whenever there is a possibility of change in political guard. That remains the true tragedy of this once-progressive state.

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Updated Date: May 16, 2019 13:02:34 IST