Supreme Court verdict in Chandigarh mayoral election offers a timely fillip to opposition parties

The ruling, seen as a rebuke to the BJP’s aggressive tactics, has injected fresh momentum into opposition parties ahead of 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Published : Feb 22, 2024 20:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

AAP candidate Kuldeep Kumar celebrates with his family members after the Apex Court declared him the Mayor of Chandigarh on February 20, 2024.

AAP candidate Kuldeep Kumar celebrates with his family members after the Apex Court declared him the Mayor of Chandigarh on February 20, 2024. | Photo Credit: ANI

On February 20, the Supreme Court overturned the disputed Chandigarh mayoral election result and declared the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Kuldeep Kumar victorious in the controversial Municipal Corporation election. The decision, coming ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, is viewed as a timely boost to opposition parties, particularly after the recent striking down of the electoral bonds scheme by the top court, declaring it “unconstitutional”. The scheme was introduced by the Modi government in 2018. 

Court observers and political analysts believe that the significance of the judgement extends beyond the Union Territory’s urban civic body. They note that it was for the first time in independent India’s history that votes were counted within the country’s highest court. So, they argue, the ruling addresses broader questions about how the judiciary should function regarding matters concerning the health of democracy.

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Following the controversial election results announced on January 30, BJP chief J.P. Nadda had congratulated his party’s Chandigarh unit for retaining the mayor’s post, sarcastically stating that the INDIA bloc fought its first electoral battle against the BJP and lost, suggesting that “neither their arithmetic is working nor their chemistry”. In this context, the Supreme Court’s judgement is seen as a rebuke to the ruling BJP’s aggressive pursuit of power through undemocratic means.

Regarding the blatant rigging of the Chandigarh mayoral election, the Supreme Court noted that the Returning Officer, Anil Masih, who is affiliated with the BJP, was “guilty of serious misdemeanour” during the vote counting process. It ordered a criminal prosecution against him under Section 340 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which deals with false testimony before the court. If proven, this charge could lead to a punishment of up to seven years.

“It’s a textbook case of how to make a victory of 20 Vs 16 into a defeat of 12 Vs 16,” said Abhishek M. Singhvi, senior Congress leader and the Supreme Court lawyer who represented AAP’s Kuldeep Kumar in court. In a television interview, Singhvi described the manipulation of election results as the “worst kind of political debauchery” and praised the Supreme Court for taking decisive action. He alleged that the new BJP has been contesting elections to win through deceit rather than legitimate means. “The SC decision would go a long way in ensuring democratic process remains sanctimonious, a cornerstone of our cherished democracy,” he said, while questioning the involvement of Masih: “Unless he has the complete backing of what he thinks the ruling power of the country, do you think he will have the guts to do it himself?”

In the mayoral election, the AAP-Congress candidate was declared to have polled 12 votes to the BJP candidate’s 16 after the returning officer invalidated eight votes by defacing them himself. Masih, who was caught on camera in the act of defacing the ballot papers, then declared BJP candidate Manoj Sonkar as the winner. Sonkar resigned from the mayor’s post prior to the Supreme Court’s decision. Masih, a nominated councillor affiliated with the BJP since 2015, has been a member of the party’s minority wing. The Chandigarh Municipal Corporation House comprises a total of 35 votes, including one vote from the Lok Sabha member representing Chandigarh, currently held by BJP leader Kirron Kher.

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan commented on social media that the judgement has “revived the flagging hope of people in the willingness and ability of the judiciary to protect rights, democracy and our Constitution which are all under siege. Our Republic will be saved if the Judiciary continues to stand tall.”

Undoubtedly, the Supreme Court’s decision provides significant support to the AAP, which has faced challenges due to the Modi government’s actions against party leaders in the Delhi excise policy case. AAP’s national convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal thanked the Apex Court for “saving democracy in these difficult times”, remarking, “There is so much sin that Lord Krishna has decided to interfere himself. It was no coincidence that cameras captured their [BJP] sins in Chandigarh’s mayoral election... The way the Supreme Court has given its verdict, it seems God was speaking through the Chief Justice of India.”

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi criticised Prime Minister Modi, alleging that the Returning Officer was merely a pawn in the “BJP’s conspiracy to murder democracy,” with “the real face behind it” being “that of Modi”.

Samajwadi Party supremo and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav stated that the BJP has been winning elections through “scams and thefts”. He wrote on social media that “BJP supporters must understand how the party is winning elections...Neither the country nor the future of their own children is safe in the hands of such people”.

Also Read | Can Congress, weakened by recent losses, hold its ground against resurgent BJP?

Despite achieving a legal and moral victory, the AAP-Congress alliance faces challenges. Just a day before the Supreme Court’s decision, at least three AAP councillors switched to the BJP, leaving both alliances with 17 councillors each. However, the BJP also holds an additional vote from Chandigarh MP Kher. To pass a no-confidence motion against the mayor’s post, the BJP would require a two-thirds majority, necessitating the presence of all 36 members, including the ex-officio member, the Chandigarh MP, and at least 24 votes from the BJP.

With a comfortable majority in the house, the BJP is likely to retain the posts of Senior Deputy Mayor and Deputy Mayor, both of which were previously boycotted by the AAP-Congress alliance as a protest against the disputed mayoral election. 

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