Feb 23, 2024

Supreme Court’s decision on the Chandigarh Mayoral Polls

In a recent order, the Supreme Court held the declared results of the Chandigarh Mayoral Polls invalid. It directed that  criminal proceedings be initiated  against the Presiding Officer of the elections for electoral malpractice. With only a few months remaining in the run up to the General Elections, this judgement raises the issue of  appropriate conduct of electoral officers and the consequences for any violation.  Let’s understand what happened in Chandigarh and what legal provisions were flouted.

What happened during the Chandigarh Mayoral Elections?

According to the Punjab Municipal Corporation Act, 1976 (“Act”) and the  Chandigarh Municipal Corporation (Procedure and Conduct of Business) Regulations, 1996  (“Regulations”) the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation must elect one of its members as the mayor of the Corporation at its first meeting every year. These Regulations also specify that the authority convening the meeting should nominate a member of the Corporation who is not contesting the elections as the “Presiding Officer” . The date of the meeting and the elections was fixed as January 18, 2024. 

One of the candidates, Kuldeep Kumar, approached the High Court of Punjab and Haryana with a writ petition seeking directions for the conduct of “free and fair elections”. The Court had directed the video recording of the entire election process. It entrusted Chandigarh Police with the responsibility of maintaining decorum during the conduct of the elections. 

Anil Masih, the Presiding Officer, issued an initial postponement order for the elections. Finally, the elections were held on January 30, 2024 under video surveillance. Once the results were declared, it was held that out of the 36 votes cast, 8 votes were invalid since the ballot papers were defaced. While the BJP backed Manoj Singh won the elections securing 16 votes, I.N.D.I.A alliance backed candidate Kuldeep Kumar had obtained 12 votes. However, Kumar moved the High Court alleging malpractices by the Presiding Officer. The High Court declined to stay the election results and Kumar approached the Supreme Court. 

What did the current appeal say?

The court ordered the playing of the video recording, which revealed that besides signing the ballot papers, the Presiding Officer also had left ink marks on the lower halves of the 8 disqualified ballot papers. All the votes on these papers were in favour of Kumar. The Presiding Officer was also seen consistently looking at the CCTV camera. 

The appellant asserted that such misconduct of the Presiding Officer severely compromised the fairness of the elections and challenged its validity. 

What did the Supreme Court say?

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal, dismissed the impugned electoral results and declared Kumar the Mayor of Chandigarh Municipal Corporation. It also observed that the Presiding Officer was guilty of serious misdemeanour and ordered that criminal proceedings be initiated against him. The Court also rejected the appeal by the respondents for fresh elections invoking Section 38(3) of the Act in the light of the fact that Singh had resigned during the course of the hearings. It held that since the “infirmity” or the issue was identified at the counting stage and not the voting stage, re-conducting the polls would not be necessary. 

To understand the Supreme Court’s decision, first let us understand what the duties of a presiding officer are. 

What are the duties of a Presiding Officer?

For a local election, the ‘Presiding Officer’ is deemed to be at par with a returning officer who, under Section 24 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, is responsible for conducting the elections in accordance with law. 

Section 6 of the Regulations applies to the Presiding officer, in this case, and says they must: 

  • preside over the electoral meeting;
  •  fix the manner and time for submission of nomination forms;
  • oversee the process of secret ballot in the course of the elections;
  • only add their initials on the ballot papers once all the votes have been cast;
  • count the votes assisted by any designated employees.

Section 6(10) also specifies that a vote will be invalid if a member votes for more than one candidate or marks their vote in an ambiguous manner or leaves any mark on the ballot paper that can identify the member. The Presiding Officer takes a decision regarding the validity of a vote in case of disputes. 

Section 27 of the Act states that a Presiding Officer cannot perform any act that will influence the voting process or further the prospect of a particular candidate. 

What did the Supreme Court observe?

The Presiding Officer claimed that he had marked the 8 papers since they were already defaced. Upon checking the ballot papers, the Court did not find any marks that could invalidate the ballot paper within the purview of section 6(10) of the Regulations. 

The marks were considered beyond the remit of the duties of the Presiding Officer. He had deliberately defaced the ballot papers. Moreover, his statements before the court were judged to have “patent falsehood”. The court issued notice of proceedings under section 340 of the Code of Criminal Code, which allows for inquiry into any content of lawful authority of  public servants like giving false evidence, absconding to avoid summons etc.. He has a chance to provide a reply in his defence till March 15, 2024.