Civic poll schedule set aside

Print edition : October 28, 2016
High Court order cites non-compliance of rules by State Election Commission.

IN a major embarrassment to the Tamil Nadu government, the Madras High Court set aside the State Election Commission’s (SEC) notification on the conduct of local body elections in the State, scheduled to be held on October 17 and 19, on the grounds of “non-compliance of Rule 24 of the Tamil Nadu Panchayat (Election) Rules, 1995”.

The court observed that since the term of the present local bodies would be over by the end of October, the government should invoke Section 261 of the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, to appoint Special Officers for the local bodies until the new elected representatives take charge. The court verdict came on a writ petition filed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) challenging the conduct of the elections without identifying wards of the Chennai Municipal Corporation reserved for the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts).

The court asked the SEC to issue fresh notifications, conduct elections and complete the election process, as per law, at the earliest, not later than December 31, 2016. This is the first time that panchayat elections are being postponed across the State. In 2006 a full bench of the Madras High Court ordered fresh elections to a few wards in the Chennai Corporation following violence and booth capturing. The DMK was in power then and the AIADMK had approached the court challenging the conduct of elections.

Panchayathi raj experts such as Prof. G. Palanithurai, Coordinator, Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies in Gandhigram Deemed University, Dindigul, are not surprised. Talking to Frontline, Palanithurai said the local body elections were vitiated mainly because of the two political powers, the DMK and the AIADMK. He said the conduct of the elections was under the State’s control. “Unlike in Kerala and a few other States, the State Election Commission in Tamil Nadu has to depend totally on the State government for this purpose. Where is the transparency in the mechanism here to ensure grass-roots-level democracy?” he asked.

Justice N. Kirubakaran, while setting aside the elections, rejected the DMK’s plea on the S.T. reservation and said that a perusal of the earlier election details “would reveal that there was no reservation for Scheduled Tribes in Chennai Municipal Corporation wards in elections in 2001 and 2006”. The data provided, he said, showed that reservation had been made to various categories according to their percentage in the total population. Elections were conducted in 2006 and 2011 on the basis of the 2001 Census, and in 2016 they were to be conducted according to the 2011 Census. “Hence, the contention that there is no proportionate reservation for Scheduled Tribes is without any substance,” he opined.

He pointed out that “though the plea and the prayer are only with regard to reservation for S.Ts, a contention has been made during arguments that the election notifications dated September 26, 2016, had not been issued as per Rule 24 of the Tamil Nadu Panchayat (Elections) Rules, 1995”. An additional affidavit was filed in this regard.

The petitioner argued that under Rule 24, two notifications had to be issued; the first was to specify the date on which the public notice of such election should be published under Rule 24 (3) and the other notification under Rule 24 (1) gives the election schedule. In this case, public notification of election under Section 24 (2) came to be issued only on September 26, which the SEC claimed to have published at 12:15 a.m. on September 26.

The petitioner also claimed that the SEC announced the elections in a press meet held on September 25 at 6:15 p.m. There was no publication of public notice of election as per Rule 24 (2) of the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, and hence the entire election process was vitiated, he claimed. However, the State government maintained that compliance of Rule 24 was total and complete.

The judge observed that the intention of the legislature was clearly to give a definite interval between two notifications prescribed under Rule 24. The notification under Rule 24 (2) (i) should specify the date of the proposed election followed by a subsequent notification containing the election schedule under Rule 24 (1). “By no stretch of imagination can both notifications be issued on the same day. Unwarranted hurry is shown by the State Election Commission,” he said..

“In the present election, no notification has been issued by the State Election Commission notifying the notification of election. Publication of gazette notification and publication of public notice of election are on the very same date, viz., September 26, 2016. The election schedule notification was issued in the midnight at 12:15 a.m. on September 26, 2016. To put it in a nutshell, the election notification issued by the State Election Commission is null and void,” the judge said. He also noted that there was no level playing field as the ruling party had prior information about the election, as proved by the announcement of its candidates on the date of notification itself. He added that the Election Commission, having delayed the election work, was rushing through procedures, thereby causing prejudice to the other contesting parties.