Andhra Pradesh loses appeal in Supreme Court against SEC decision to hold local body elections

Published : January 26, 2021 22:43 IST

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

The long-running legal feud between Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy and State Election Commissioner Nimmagadda Ramesh Kumar turned another inglorious, and largely unnecessary, page on January 25 when the Supreme Court dismissed a plea by the Andhra Pradesh government challenging the SEC’s decision to conduct gram panchayat elections and other local body elections in February. The Supreme Court Bench attributed the problems to an “ego battle” between authorities.

Holding that the tone and tenor of the State’s appeal suggested an “ego battle” between the government and the SEC, the two-judge bench of the apex court, headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, stated: “Ego problems between two authorities are causing all this…. We will not be party to an ego battle.” Elections, the court ruled, “have been held in this country in far more difficult times”.

The Jagan Mohan Reddy government had cited a preoccupation with the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination drive and the coronavirus pandemic as the primary reasons for it challenging the holding of elections in February. “The entire police force of the State is scheduled to be vaccinated with effect from first week of February. This is when the elections are scheduled. In effect, the police will be required to (i) ensure that the entire police force is vaccinated; (ii) ensure that the elections are conducted; (iii) ensure storage and transport of the vaccine,” the State’s petition in the apex court said. Andhra also contended that the SEC had not consulted health experts before announcing the schedule for the elections. But the apex court was hearing none of it.

“Ego problem between two authorities is leading to lawlessness. We cannot allow lawlessness. How can resolutions be passed against the State Election Commissioner, N. Ramesh Kumar?” Justice Kaul asked Andhra Pradesh’s lawyers, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi and Mahfooz A. Nazki.

“We cannot take over the jobs of everyone. There are some political and administrative decisions. Some decisions will be taken by the Election Commission. This makes me feel this is not the issue, it is something else,” noted Justice Kaul. The court went on to term the resolutions issued by the State employees’ federations against the SEC as “highly deplorable”.

Justice Kaul, who was on the Bench with Justice Hrishikesh Roy, further stated: “The purpose of the State Election Commission is to take over elections... Every time this process is started, some reason is being given to postpone the elections.... The SEC is alive to the fact of the vaccination drive, the court should not take over such functions from the Election Commission. This is against the constitutional scheme. There is only a very limited scope of judicial review here.”

Senior advocate Ranjit Kumar and advocate K. Parameshwar appeared for the SEC.

The Bench also did not take too kindly to an intervenor who argued that local body elections recently conducted in Kerala had led to a spike in COVID-19 infections. Terming interventions on the matter “wholly uncalled for”, Justice Kaul said: “Nobody can say the spike happened because of this or that.... Very difficult to blame or judge anyone. States have conducted elections during COVID-19. Even Kerala did and there is a spike now, but we can’t say polls were the reason.... We will not meddle in the affairs of the SEC.”

Even senior advocate Rohatgi’s reference to Goa recently deferring its local body elections did not cut any ice with the Bench. Nor his plea that the Andhra Pradesh government was only asking for a deferment of the elections to ensure the safe conduct of the vaccination drive. Justice Kaul held that the conducting of elections was part of the political process and the State was “not allowing it to be conducted”.

The SEC’s announcement of the elections was initially challenged by the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, where a Single Judge Bench upheld the government’s contention and suspended the election process on January 11. The SEC successfully appealed against the single judge bench’s judgment, with a Division Bench reversing the single judge’s order, against which the State approached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court pointed out that the High Court single bench’s order did not give any reason for its conclusion against going ahead with the elections.

Reacting to the Supreme Court’s verdict, Sajjala Ramakrishna Reddy, Adviser to Government (Public Affairs), stated: “The government respects the apex court judgment. But the elections were not sought to be postponed to gain an upper hand on somebody as alleged by the opposition parties. The YSRCP is ready for polls. It was for the public health that we wanted the elections to be on hold for a few months.”

SEC announces new schedule

After the latest legal pronouncement, the SEC announced a rescheduling of the dates for the gram panchayat elections, with voting for the first phase now scheduled to take place on February 9. According to the SEC, this will result in a reshuffle of the phases that had been initially planned. The previously scheduled second, third and fourth phases will now be the first, second and third phases respectively and will take place on February 9, February 13 and February 17. Voting for the new fourth phase will take place on February 21. Counting of votes and declaration of results will also be on February 21.

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