EC moves top court against MP HC order restricting physical rallies
The ECI move came two days after the Gwalior bench of the high court directed the administrators of nine districts in its jurisdiction to grant permissions for physical public rallies only if virtual meetings are not possible ahead of the bypolls to 28 seats slated for November 3.Updated: Oct 23, 2020, 07:50 IST
The Election Commission of India (ECI) approached the Supreme Court on Thursdayagainst an order of the Madhya Pradesh high court’s Gwalior bench, which put stringent restrictions on physical campaigning by candidates for the assembly by-elections in the state next month in view of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.
The conduct and management of elections is overseen by ECI under the Constitution, the poll watchdog said in its petition submitted through advocate Amit Sharma. It added that the high court order was passed in total disregard of ECI’s guidelines on gatherings and the state’s Covid-19 protocol that allowed such congregations with curbs.
The petition also cited Article 329 of the Constitution that lays down an express bar on interference by courts in electoral matters.
The ECI move came two days after the Gwalior bench of the high court directed the administrators of nine districts in its jurisdiction (Gwalior, Guna, Morena, Bhind, Ashok Nagar, Datia, Shivpuri, Sheopur and Vidisha) to grant permissions for physical public rallies, irrespective of the size of the gathering, only if virtual meetings are not possible ahead of the bypolls to 28 seats slated for November 3. The state has 52 districts.
The right to health and life of ordinary people is more sacred and precious when set off against the right to campaign of candidates in an election, the court observed in its October 20 order that has triggered a flutter.
Even if a physical congregation is permitted by the district (DM) magistrate and ECI, it can take place only after the political party/candidate deposits money with the DM that is sufficient to purchase double the number of masks and sanitisers required for those attending the event, according to the court.
Additionally, the candidate will have to file an affidavit that “he shall be personally liable to distribute masks and sanitiser to all the members of the congregation before the meeting/congregation starts”, the court said.
In its appeal, ECI said its Covid-19 guidelines on poll meetings were formulated on September 25 in exercise of its powers under Article 324, which gives the watchdog authority to conduct and oversee the electoral process.
The guidelines permitted “public gatherings” and “election rallies” in adherence to standard operating procedures (SOP) of the state government that allows political gatherings of over 100 people with safety measures, the petition said.
ECI requested the apex court for urgent listing of its appeal since the next hearing in the high court is expected to take place on Friday.
Separately, two candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — Pradyuman Singh Tomar(Gwalior)and Munnalal Goyal (Gwalior East)— too challenged the high court order before the Supreme Court and prayed for urgent listing of their pleas. The two separate pleas said the HC order should be set aside as it interfered with their right to contest elections.
“The impugned interim order has violated the petitioner’s right to conduct election campaign through physical gatherings as permitted by the Election Commission, Central Government and State of Madhya Pradesh,” said the petitions presented in the court by advocate Astha Sharma.
The same high court order by a two-judge division bench of justices Sheel Nagu and Rajeev Kumar Shrivastava also ordered that first information reports (FIRs) be lodged against Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar and state Congress president Kamal Nath for alleged breach of Covid-19 protocols in holding rallies.
On Tuesday, the state filed status reports indicating 10 FIRs have been registered against organisers of election rallies conducted in alleged breach of Covid-19 protocol. This list, however, did not include the names of Tomar and Nath. During Tuesday’s hearing, the state assured the high court that the names will be included.
The court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) by lawyer Ashish Pratap Singh, who sought a total restraint on physical gatherings in the backdrop of the Covid crisis.
In state capital Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, too, said on Thursday his party will move the Supreme Court even as he cancelled two of his election meetings in Gwalior-Chambal region in view of the Gwalior bench’s order.
“We can’t hold meetings in parts of Madhya Pradesh but can do that in other parts of the state. Public meetings and rallies are being organised in Bihar (for the upcoming assembly elections there). We are going to Supreme Court for justice and hope, we will get justice,” he said.
District election offices in the state, meanwhile, started seeking affidavits — made mandatory by the court — from candidates on distributing masks and providing sanitizer at face-to-face election meetings, provided they get all the clearances to hold such an event and follow social-distancing norms.
“We are going to hold physical meetings and rallies...for that, we will submit an affidavit to the district administration,” a senior BJP leader who did not want to be named said.
State Congress media coordinator Narendra Saluja said the party was not planning to challenge the order at this moment. “Of course, whatever judgment comes from the Supreme Court will be applicable to all in the state and elsewhere...However, our stand is there should be uniformity in the process of election campaign across the state.”