SC stays HC order barring rallies in MP
The order was challenged by the Election Commission of India (ECI) on the grounds that it amounted to a direct interference with the commission’s power to supervise and monitor elections in the country under Article 324 of the Constitution. ECI also contended that the high court order paralysed election campaigning in the state.Updated: Oct 27, 2020, 01:41 IST
The Supreme Court on Monday stayed a direction passed by the Madhya Pradesh high court that imposed strict conditions on physical gatherings by political parties on the campaign trail for the 28 assembly seats in the state for which bypolls will be conducted on November 3.
The high court order -- delivered by its Gwalior bench on October 20 and later extended on October 23 -- said that public campaign meetings could be held only if virtual events were not possible, and with the written permission of district magistrates after fulfilling safety conditions due to the pandemic.
The order was challenged by the Election Commission of India (ECI) on the grounds that it amounted to a direct interference with the commission’s power to supervise and monitor elections in the country under Article 324 of the Constitution. ECI also contended that the high court order paralysed election campaigning in the state.
It was also challenged by two candidates from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – Pradyuman Singh Tomar and Munnalal Goyal, contesting elections from two seats in the Gwalior assembly segment -- who said that the restraint on physical rallies has cost them a seven days of campaigning, and asked that they should be compensated for this by being given additional time to reach out to the electorate.
The bench of justices AM Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheshwari and Sanjeev Khanna agreed that the order must be stayed, but justified the high court’s directions in light of the spread of the virus. “We direct the Election Commission to consider the issues referred to in the impugned order (of the high court) and proceed in the matter in that regard in accordance with law appropriately. We are not expressing any opinion either way on the merits of the process to be adopted or about the decision to be reached by the Election Commission of India,” the bench said.
“The situation was not improving on the ground so High Court had to interfere. You (ECI) should have intervened at appropriate stage and ensured that public meetings by candidates do not violate the Standard Operating Protocol (issued by the state owing to the Covid-19 pandemic). We wish you were more proactive in supervising elections,” it added.
ECI issued guidelines on September 25, allowing for physical gatherings subject to curbs recommended by the state. But the HC was told on October 20 that 10 FIRs were registered against candidates who violated rules.
The judges told the probe panel that it shoulders the responsibility for holding free and fair elections and not the High Court. “You must set right the situation. We will stay this order but you must ensure there is no violation of the law seeing the ground situation.” On the demand for added time for campaigning, the bench gave liberty to the candidates or political parties to approach ECI.
State spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rajneesh Agrawal, said: “Our party will continue to respect and follow the ECI guidelines in the elections as decided by the SC.”
Congress spokesperson for the state, Bhupendra Gupta, hailed the order. “High court’s order had led to a state of confusion as to whose orders to follow whether ECI’s or Home Department’s or the high court’s. The SC’s order has made the situation clear.”
Political analyst Girija Shankar said, “Supreme Court’s order has come in accordance with The Representation of the People Act, 1951 which states that once the election process begins Election Commission is the authority which will decide the entire election process. After high court’s order it appeared that the high court was intervening in the process slightly. Hence, it’s ECI which moved the Supreme Court first.”
Still, Shankar added, the HC was only trying to address inadequacies in how campaigning was happeing against the backdrop of Covid-19. “Political parties have been responsible for crowds in political meetings and violations of Covid-19 protocol. Unfortunately, the collectors who were and are supposed to take action in capacity of returning officers on such violations kept mum. Hence, HC had to intervene. But even then the HC didn’t fully undermine the authority of the Commission as it said the permission for the political meetings will be given by the collectors only after approval by the Commission.”