February 6, 2024
NEW DELHI – The Supreme Court on Monday said it was “appalled” by the conduct of the returning officer in Chandigarh mayoral polls who made a “mockery” of democracy and “murdered” it, and needs to be prosecuted.
It said it was aghast over the way the officer conducted the election by defacing the ballot paper to ensure the defeat of the AAP-Congress combine candidate Kuldeep Kumar.
Giving vent to its outrage after watching the video recording of the conduct of the mayor’s election, Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud heading a bench also comprising Justice J.B. Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra called for the entire record relating to the conduct of the elections including ballot papers, the video recording and other material, and directed the Deputy Commissioner of Chandigarh administration to hand over the same to the Registrar General of the Punjab and Haryana High Court for safekeeping and custody by 05.00 pm on Monday.
The video recording of the conduct of the mayor’s election was ordered by the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Directing the Returning Officer to remain present in the Supreme Court on February 19 – the next date of hearing – to explain his conduct as it appears in the video, the bench in its order said, “Prima facie, at this stage, we are of the considered view that an appropriate interim order was warranted, which the High Court has failed to pass, in order to protect the purity and sanctity of the electoral process.”
Having called for the entire record relating to the conduct of the mayor’s election, the Supreme Court also indefinitely deferred the holding of the first meeting of the civic body slated for Wednesday – February 7, 2024.
“If our conscience is not satisfied, we will order fresh elections,” the court said while entertaining the petition by Kuldeep Kumar – the AAP -Congress combine candidate in mayoral election.
Telling the returning officer that the Supreme Court is watching him, Chief Justice Chandrachud said that before defacing the ballot papers, the returning officer – a Haryana cadre IAS officer – was looking at the camera.
“This is a mockery of democracy. RO is murdering democracy. We are simply appalled by what he is doing. Is this the way elections are conducted by a RO? We will not allow democracy to be murdered this way. The man puts a cross at the top of the ballots, the moment he sees a cross at the bottom (of the ballot paper),” the CJI said.
Dismayed over the conduct of the returning officer, Chief Justice Chandrachud said, “This is a mockery of democracy. This is a murder of democracy. He needs to be prosecuted. We will not allow democracy to be murdered. Why he looks at the camera? Tell your returning officer we are watching him.”
CJI said, “The only great stabilizing force in this country is the purity of democracy.”
The Returning officer had invalidated eight votes of AAP-Cong combine of 20, thereby paving the way for the victory of BJP candidate with a backing of 16 councillors – elected civic body members.
The bench appeared unmoved as the Solicitor General Tushar Metha told the bench not to form an opinion by looking at one side of the picture that is before it by way of the video recording of the polling process.
At the outset of the hearing, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi appearing for AAP’s mayoral candidate Kuldeep Kumar said that returning officer redubbed the majority of 20 to a minority of 12.
The AAP candidate Kuldeep Kumar has approached the Supreme Court seeking fresh mayoral polls in Chandigarh. Kuldeep Kumar has challenged the Punjab and Haryana High Court refusing to pass an interim order staying the result in which Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Manoj Sonkar was declared elected as Mayor.
While refusing to stay the election result, the High Court had issued notices to the Chandigarh administration, the municipal corporation, presiding officer Anil Masih and newly-elected Mayor Manoj Sonkar, among others. The High Court posted the matter for hearing on February 26.
Besides the denial of the stay of the result, the AAP councillor Kuldip Kumar has pointed to the listing of his plea after three weeks on February 26, 2024.
In the High Court Kuldip Kumar has sought directions for holding fresh polls in a free and fair manner, under the supervision of a retired judge to ensure “no malpractice”.
The AAP councillor has also sought an investigation by an independent agency into the “entire fraud” committed during the election process.
BJP’s Manoj Sonkar was elected as the Mayor on January 30, 2024, after he bagged 16 votes against the 12 votes received by the Congress-AAP candidate Kumar. Eight votes were rejected in the process as invalid.
The appeal in the top court said that the High Court erred in not granting any interim relief to the AAP candidate in the form of stay on outcome of elections for the post of Mayor or directing the preservation of electoral records.