"Murder of democracy", prosecute Returning Officer, says SC on Chandigarh mayoral polls

"Murder of democracy", prosecute Returning Officer, says SC on Chandigarh mayoral polls

New Delhi/Chandigarh | The Supreme Court on Monday rapped the Returning Officer who conducted the recent Chandigarh mayoral polls, observing it is obvious he defaced the ballot papers and that he should be prosecuted, adding his action amounted to "murder” and “mockery" of democracy.

An “appalled” Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, who headed a three-judge Division bench, said it will not allow democracy to be murdered like this and that the apex court will order fresh elections if not satisfied with the purity of the poll process.

Asking whether the Returning Officer(RO) is an officer or a fugitive, the court also ordered preservation of ballots and the video of the poll proceedings besides seeking his personal appearance during the next hearing in the Chandigarh mayoral polls case on February 19.

The top court gave the order after it took note of the allegations in the plea of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) councillor Kuldeep Kumar, who lost the mayoral poll, that the RO squiggled eight ballot papers of councillors of the Congress-AAP alliance, rendering them invalid.

The BJP swept the Chandigarh mayoral polls on January 30, retaining all three posts, in a setback to the Congress-AAP alliance that alleged tampering with ballot papers by the presiding officer.

Manoj Sonkar of the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) defeated Kumar polling 16 votes against his rival's 12 to bag the Mayor's post. Eight votes were declared invalid.

“It is obvious that he(the RO) has defaced the ballot papers.This man should be prosecuted. Look, why is he looking at the camera? Mr Solicitor (General), this is a mockery of democracy and murdering the democracy, we are appalled. Is this the behaviour of a returning officer,” Justice Chandrachud observed after watching the video recording of the electoral process.

“Lordships have only one side of the picture. Don't form an opinion based on something said selectively,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Chandigarh authorities, told the bench which also comprised justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.

“The moment there is a cross at the top, the man defaces the ballot and looks at the camera. Please tell your returning officer that the Supreme Court is watching him. We will not allow democracy to be murdered like this. The great stabilising force is the purity of the election process and what has happened here,” the bench observed.

The bench directed that the entire records, pertaining to the election of the mayor, be “sequestered under the custody of the Registrar of the Punjab and Haryana High Court” by 5 pm on Monday by the Deputy Commissioner of Chandigarh, the present custodian of records.

“Produce the entirety of the video on the next occasion. We are not going by the regulations, we want our conscience to be satisfied otherwise hold fresh elections. We will direct the returning officer to conduct a fresh election. Why is he looking at the camera? He has to do his duty. Is he an officer or a fugitive? Quietly, he defaces the ballot,” the CJI orally observed.

The AAP and the Congress hailed the court observations, saying it was a "tight slap" on the face of the BJP.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said the rap by the court showed that "democracy was murdered", asserting that people will give a befitting reply.

Punjab Congress president Amrinder Singh Raja Warring in his post on X said, "Hon'ble SC's observation regarding the botched up Chandigarh Mayor elections that it was a mockery of democracy further vindicated the accusations against the @BJP4India of rigging elections."

AAP Rajya Sabha MP Sandeep Pathak welcomed the observations, saying it is because of such decisions that people's "hopes are pinned on the legal system".

Speaking to PTI Videos, Pathak said the SC decision is "quite encouraging".

The top court also ordered that the scheduled meeting of the Chandigarh civic body on February 7 will stand deferred till further orders.

“The Returning Officer shall remain present before this Court on the next date of listing to explain his conduct as it appears in the video,” it ordered and fixed the next hearing of the plea on February 19.

The apex court was also critical of the fact that the Punjab and Haryana High Court did not pass any interim order keeping in mind the facts of the case.

“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,” it said.

“We direct that the entire record pertaining to the election of the Mayor of the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation shall be sequestered under the custody of the Registrar General of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana. This shall include: (i) The ballot papers; (ii) Videography of the entire electoral process; and (iii) All other material in the custody of the Returning Officer."

Senior advocate Abhishek Singhvi, appearing for AAP leader Kumar, said the alliance had 20 votes as against 16 of BJP in the civic body and that eight ballots of the alliance were rendered invalid by defacing them.

A BJP candidate was chosen as the Presiding Officer and he acted in a partisan manner by deliberately defacing eight ballot papers of the Congress-AAP councillors, the senior lawyer alleged.

The AAP plea was filed in the top court challenging a Punjab and Haryana High Court order that refused to grant any interim relief to the party seeking fresh mayoral polls in Chandigarh.

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