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Blow to BJP as Supreme Court Declares AAP-Congress Candidate Winner of Chandigarh Mayoral Poll

The bench ordered an inquiry against Anil Masih, the election's presiding officer and a former general secretary of the BJP's Chandigarh minority cell, adding that he spoke falsehoods in his statements to the apex court.
The Supreme Court of India. Photo: Pinakpani/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Chandigarh: In a major blow to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Supreme Court during a resumed hearing on the controversial Chandigarh mayoral election declared the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s Kuldeep Kumar the validly elected mayor of the city’s municipal corporation on Tuesday (February 20).

This comes after the bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud ruled that the election’s presiding officer, Anil Masih, made a deliberate attempt to deface eight ballots that were cast in favour of Kumar so that the BJP’s Manoj Sonkar was declared the elected candidate.

“Yesterday, the presiding officer made a solemn statement before this court that he had done so as the eight ballots were defaced. It is evident that none of the ballots are defaced [before Masih made markings on them],” the bench said after it examined the defaced ballots.

According to the bench, the conduct of the presiding officer has to be deprecated at two levels. First, he has unlawfully altered the course of the mayoral election. Second, in making a solemn statement before the court on Monday (February 19), the presiding officer expressed falsehood for which he must be held accountable.

“For the above reasons, we have come to the conclusion that the results declared by the presiding officer are unlawful and have to be set aside,” the court stated.

Further, taking stern action against Masih, the bench ruled that a fit case is made out for the initiation of proceedings under Section 340 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which deals with court-monitored inquiries, against him.

“Registrar Judicial is directed to issue a notice to Anil Masih, to show cause as to why steps should not be initiated against him under Section 340 CrPC,” the bench ruled.

Masih was also general secretary of the BJP’s Chandigarh minority cell. After the controversy surrounding the mayoral election, he was taken down from the post on February 12.

SC says no to fresh election

Appearing on behalf of Masih, the solicitor general had sought fresh polls, which the BJP ideally wanted as it had already inducted three AAP councillors into its fold in order to muster enough numbers in the event of a re-poll.

But the Supreme Court ruled against this, with the bench stating it was of the view that setting aside the entire election process is inappropriate as the only infirmity was found in the counting process.

Setting aside the entire election process will compound the destruction of the democratic principles that occurred due to the conduct of the presiding officer, it stated.

According to the bench, the court is duty bound to ensure that the democratic process is not set at naught by such subterfuge.

“We are therefore of the view that the court must step in such exceptional circumstances to ensure that the basic democratic mandate is ensured,” the bench added.

Congress, AAP hail SC order

In his first reaction after the Supreme Court’s order, AAP supremo and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal thanked the court for saving democracy in these difficult times.

Kejriwal congratulated Kumar and said that he hails from a poor family.

“His victory became possible because of the SC. This is a victory of Indian democracy,” Kejriwal said.

In his statement, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said, “The Supreme Court has saved democracy from the fangs of an autocratic BJP, which resorted to dirty election manipulation.”

“The institutional sabotage in the Chandigarh mayor polls is only a tip of the iceberg in Modi-Shah’s devious conspiracy to trample democracy. All Indians must fight this onslaught on our constitution, collectively. Never forget. Our democracy shall be at the crossroads in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections!” he continued.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi reacted by saying that Masih was just a pawn in the BJP’s attempt to murder democracy.

BJP president J.P. Nadda had earlier said of Sonkar’s victory that it showed how the INDIA political bloc, of which both the Congress and AAP are part of, was not working out.

“That the INDI Alliance fought their first electoral battle and still lost to [the] BJP shows that neither their arithmetic is working nor their chemistry,” Nadda said in a post on X congratulating Sonkar.

How Masih made the BJP candidate the winner

The election for the post of mayor was conducted on January 30. Two candidates were in the fray for the post.

Kuldeep Kumar was a candidate set up in an alliance between the AAP and the Congress. The BJP, on the other hand, fielded Manoj Sonkar.

Thirty-five councillors as well as Chandigarh’s MP were eligible to vote during the mayoral election, taking the total number of eligible voters to 36.

Election to the post of mayor is governed by the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation (Procedure and Conduct of Business) Regulations, 1996 and is held by secret ballot.

Kumar was the favourite to win, since both the AAP and the Congress had total of 20 councillors (13 of the AAP and seven of the Congress), while the BJP’s maximum strength was 15 votes including one vote from the Chandigarh BJP MP.

However, Masih declared as many as eight votes of AAP and Congress councillors invalid, thereby declaring Sonkar as the new Chandigarh mayor, who won the election by 16 votes to 12.

The case proceedings in the Supreme Court prove beyond doubt that Masih had deliberately rigged eight opposition votes to favour the BJP’s Sonkar, who has already resigned from the post on Sunday while apprehending stern action from apex court.

As per the Supreme Court, Masih had evidently marked the ballots for the purpose of treating them as invalid.

In doing so, he has acted beyond his remit of statutory regulations, it added.

While declaring Kumar as the new Chandigarh mayor, the Supreme Court ruled that the ink marks placed by Masih at the end of the ballots have no consequence and that these votes would therefore be treated valid.

SC order halts the BJP’s alternate plan

BJP leaders in Chandigarh were in a state of extreme disquiet ever since the apex court began its hearing of mayoral poll issue on February 5.

In first hearing itself, the Supreme Court snubbed Masih and made it clear that it would not let democracy be “murdered” like this.

Sensing that the court might set the election aside, BJP leaders started working on alternate plans to stay in power.

As a result, it made Sonkar resign and then poached three AAP councillors on Sunday (February 18) in order to have a sufficient strength of councillors in the event of a repoll.

These three AAP councillors joined the BJP in the presence of BJP general secretary Vinod Tawde and former Chandigarh BJP chief Arun Sood.

But the Supreme Court order on Tuesday halted the BJP’s alternate plan even as the AAP worried about what was next.

AAP leader from Chandigarh leader Prem Garg told The Wire that the BJP’s humiliation at the national level was the result of its greed to win even the smallest of elections by any means possible.

“The BJP should have respectfully allowed the AAP-Congress candidate win the mayoral polls since we had the requisite number. But their hunger for power did not let it happen. They did not stop even when [Supreme Court] caught their theft.

“But [the Supreme Court] order proved that democracy is still alive in the country.”

Garg added that Kumar, the newly declared mayor, will take charge on Wednesday (February 21).

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