Andhra Pradesh High Court suspends State Election Commission’s decision to hold local body elections

Published : January 12, 2021 17:37 IST

Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy. Photo: PTI

In a serious legal blow to the Andhra Pradesh State Election Commission (SEC), a single-judge Vacation Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court on Monday suspended the SEC’s decision to hold elections to gram panchayats (GPs)/rural local bodies in four phases across the State in February, and the imposition of the election Model Code of Conduct across the State.

Holding that the decision was unpragmatic and made “without decisional consultation with the State government”, the bench also opined that conducting the elections would constitute a hindrance to the mammoth vaccination programme undertaken by the Central government and the States to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy-led Andhra Pradesh government, in a petition filed on January 9, had maintained that the vaccination drive would be akin to a general election and its entire machinery would be involved in the process. Last November, the Andhra Pradesh government opposed the conducting of the elections citing the possibility of spread of COVID-19.

The Jagan Mohan Reddy government approached the High Court following a motion passed in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly opposing the SEC’s order announcing the local body elections. In its writ petition, the State government claimed that the SEC’s orders were based on the consideration of material extraneous to record, arbitrary, and an irrational rejection of the government’s views. The writ petition further asserted that that the SEC decision was based on surmises, conjectures, and assumptions, vitiated by arbitrariness and malice, and violative of law. Declaring the order as vitiated by arbitrariness, the State government urged the High Court to stay the same.

During arguments, the State’s Advocate-General S. Sriram said the duty to be fair, reasonable, and non-arbitrary also applied to the SEC. Sriram observed that the SEC had stated last March—after deciding to postpone elections to the Mandal Praja Parishad Territorial Constituencies (MPTCs) and the Zilla Praja Parishad Territorial Constituencies (ZPTCs) citing the pandemic—that the election process would resume from where it had stopped. But instead, the SEC initiated the process to hold gram panchayat and local body elections without even making a mention of the MPTC and ZPTC elections.

Counsel for the SEC, senior advocate N. Ashwani Kumar, contended that the government had been seeking a postponement of the elections on one pretext or the other.

Upon a prima facie consideration, a bench of Justice M. Ganga Rao upheld the State government’s stand. Noting that the SEC had failed to consider the State’s inputs objectively and in its proper perspective, the court proceeded to declare that the order violated Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution.

Setting aside the SEC’s order in the interest of public health, the court has posted the matter for further hearing to February 15, 2021.

Ongoing spat

The legal fight is another unsavoury episode in the ongoing spat between the Jagan Mohan Reddy government and State Election Commissioner Nimmagadda Ramesh Kumar. A bickering that hit the headlines last April, after the Jagan Mohan Reddy government issued governmental orders downsizing the term of office of the SEC from five years to three years with “immediate effect”. This was done after amending the Andhra Pradesh Panchayat Raj Act, 1994. The amendment was clearly meant to oust Ramesh Kumar from his post as he had already completed three years in office.

While many legal experts opined that the ordinance was ultra vires and in contravention of the spirit of Article 243K(4) of the Constitution in relation to panchayats, Ramesh Kumar himself took the matter to the High Court. In May, the Andhra Pradesh High Court struck down the Andhra Pradesh Panchayat Raj (Second Amendment) Ordinance and the consequential governmental orders reducing the tenure of the SEC from five to three years.

A two-judge bench of the court comprising Chief Justice J.K. Maheswari and Justice M. Satyanarayana Murthy directed the State government to reinstate Ramesh Kumar as the SEC with immediate effect. Though the State government moved the Supreme Court challenging the High Court order, the apex court, after prolonged hearings, upheld the High Court judgement in July, directing that the government reinstate Ramesh Kumar as the SEC.

In the past, Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy had directly accused Ramesh Kumar of postponing MPTC and ZPTC elections at the behest of and in collusion with former Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu because both belonged to the same caste.

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