The controversy in West Bengal in the matter of deployment of central paramilitary forces ahead of the panchayat elections to be held on July 8 is quite unedifying. The State Election Commission (SEC) initially appeared reluctant to heed calls by Opposition parties to bring in central forces to boost security arrangements. A perceived delay in identifying sensitive areas resulted in the Calcutta High Court ordering the poll body to ask for and deploy central forces. In the ordinary course, the deployment of central forces during local body elections, conducted under the watch of the SEC, would be at the State government’s discretion. However, it is an unfortunate reality that West Bengal frequently witnesses poll-related violence. Even in the current poll process, eight people have died, and there are reports of prospective candidates being prevented from filing their nominations for some panchayats. In these circumstances, it would have been in the fitness of things for the SEC to requisition central forces on its own, even if the State government had some grievance over its discretion being overruled by the High Court order. However, the SEC, which ought to have had no misgivings about it, joined the government in approaching the Supreme Court of India against the order. The Court affirmed the High Court’s directives, noting that the core issue was free and fair elections. Moreover, the whole State was going to vote on a single day for nearly 74,000 seats, and that given the high number of seats and polling booths, the directions were justified.
In yet another unfortunate turn, the SEC responded to the apex court’s order by requisitioning central forces in 22 districts (one company each), in a move that showed pique and resentment rather than compliance. The High Court has once again intervened, noting that the requisitioned number was thoroughly inadequate and directed that more forces, not less than the size of the forces used during the 2013 panchayat polls be sought, when as many as 1.05 lakh police personnel and 82,000 central personnel were deployed. The controversy flags the issue of political violence, which is quite endemic to West Bengal. Each election sets off a round of violence and demands for central forces. The federal principle that law and order is under the State’s domain is often strained and tested at such times. The High Court had ordered a CBI investigation into incidents of serious violence after the last Assembly election in 2021. A truly independent election watchdog and a sense of responsibility among all political parties are necessary to preserve the purity of the election process.