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How can any national political party cheat so blatantly?

I assume you have been following the strange saga of the Chandigarh Mayoral Election.

The latest instalment is the Supreme Court’s intervention, which has resulted in the appointment of the real winner of the election—the man who had been cheated out of victory—as the Mayor.


If you care about electoral democracy, as I imagine we all do, then you must be relieved that justice has been done.


   I share your relief. But I think two other emotions are also called for: horror and caution.


   Horror because of the brazenness of what transpired in Chandigarh. I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago. But if you missed that article or if you have spent the last month on Mars or Venus, blissfully unaware of what has been going on here on Earth, let me offer a quick summary.


   On 30 January, an election to appoint the Mayor of Chandigarh was held. In the House of 35, the Aam Aadmi Party had 13 votes. It tied up with the Congress, which had seven. With 20 out of 35 votes, it should have been a shoo-in for AAP candidate Kuldeep Kumar.


   Except that the presiding officer for the election, Bharatiya Janata Party member Anil Masih, waited for all the votes to come in and then sat down and personally defaced eight ballot papers, all of which were votes for Kuldeep Kumar. After invalidating these ballots, he declared the BJP candidate elected.


   Reporters covering the counting said on air that the presiding officer was fiddling with the ballot papers. But Masih went ahead undeterred and declared that the BJP candidate had been elected as Mayor.


   Rather than accept that there had been a problem with the counting, the BJP – which must have known what was going on – delightedly embraced this illegally procured victory and celebrated the success of its candidate.


   It is not much of an excuse, but you could possibly argue that local BJP office-bearers can be petty. You could also argue that a Mayoral election is a big deal for the city’s BJP unit, so they accepted the victory no matter how illegitimately it had been secured.


   But even so, how can any national political party cheat so blatantly? So shamelessly?


   What’s worse is that once the matter went national, nobody from the central BJP leadership—which, presumably, realises that the Mayoral election in Chandigarh is not a huge deal in national terms—bothered to step in. It would have been simple enough to get the bogus winner to resign and call for a fresh election. In any case, the BJP is busy organising defections from AAP in Chandigarh so who knows, by the time a second election came around, it might even have won.


   But no. The national leadership looked benignly at this open abuse of the electoral process and its minions in the media declared ‘a big defeat for the INDIA alliance.’


"Why taint a big national victory to come with cheating in a small-time election? Why demonstrate such open contempt for the democratic process?"

   The matter went to the Supreme Court, which was appalled upon viewing the footage of the presiding officer defacing the ballots. “It is evident the presiding officer is guilty of serious misdemeanours in doing what he did in his capacity as presiding officer”, said the Court. As for the shameless presiding officer himself, the court said “A fit and proper case is made out under section 340 of Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) in respect of the presiding officer.”


   Three cheers for the Supreme Court and I am glad to see that it pulled no punches. But the bigger question remains: it is now increasingly clear that the BJP will win the next election. It really doesn’t need to worry about a small-time Mayoral Election in Chandigarh. So why did it allow its office-bearers to rig this election so brazenly?


   Why doesn’t the senior leadership step in? Why, instead of just admitting that its members behaved disgracefully, does the BJP engage India’s top lawyers and try and justify its audacity in the Supreme Court?


   I can think of no reasonable answer to those questions. Nor have I come across any satisfactory explanations offered by the BJP itself. Why taint a big national victory to come with cheating in a small-time election? Why demonstrate such open contempt for the democratic process?


   There has been much praise of the Supreme Court over the last week by journalists, commentators and ordinary citizens, not only because of its actions in the Chandigarh case but because of the judgment striking down Electoral Bonds as unconstitutional.


   In both matters, the Court acted in a manner that was certain to annoy the ruling dispensation. At a time when the electronic media function as the government's pet Pomeranians and the Opposition has no real voice in Parliament, more and more educated Indians are looking to the Supreme Court and hoping it speaks up on issues such as these.


   But we need to be cautious. Because this path is fraught with danger. First of all, despite every judgment that critics of the BJP hail, there are also many others that delight the government. Some of the Court’s actions may be hard to defend: the unwillingness to even hear Umar Khalid’s bail petition, for instance. And some may be controversial. I respect Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s decision in the Ayodhya case but I do think that it was extremely ill-advised for him to accept a Rajya Sabha nomination after retirement.


   Regardless of how judgments go, it is not a viable long-term solution for us to look to the Supreme Court and expect it to function as the voice of the Opposition. That is a job the Opposition should be doing – and sadly, it is not being able to do it very well.


   Besides, given how the other institutions of democracy have fared in recent years, do you really believe that the Supreme Court would survive in its present form for very long if it became an Opposition voice?


   So yes, I am glad that the Chandigarh farce was called out. I am pleased too that the Court went back to constitutional first principles in the electoral bonds case. But do not expect it to act as a force against the government. That is not the Court’s job. And nor should it be.


   All we should expect of the Supreme Court is that it looks fairly at the matters brought before it and rules in the spirit of the Constitution. Sadly, it hasn’t always done so.


   Equally, we should not try and impose our own political beliefs on the Court and hope that it rules according to them. In the medium term—let alone the long run—we will all die or fade away; politicians, judges, commentators and citizens, all of us.


   It is the Constitution that should outlast and outlive all of us. As long as the Court can protect and preserve the Constitution, none of us should ask for more.



Posted On: 22 Feb 2024 12:00 PM
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