In a relief to the Trinamool Congress whose candidates had won over 20,000 local body seats in West Bengal uncontested, the Supreme Court on Friday turned down the pleas of the CPI(M) and BJP seeking cancellation of the polls on grounds of alleged obstruction in the filing of nomination papers.
The top court, while refusing to set aside the elections to the uncontested seats in the violence-marred panchayat polls, referred to the settled legal principle and said once the election process has commenced, it is “trite law” that it should not be interdicted mid-stage.
Out of total of 58,692 seats combined for ‘Gram Panchayats’, ‘Panchayat Samiti’ and ‘Zila Parishads’, 20,159 seats were uncontested.
The court also set aside the Calcutta High Court order directing the state poll panel to allow filing of nomination papers in panchayat elections through electronic forms, such as e-mails and WhatsApp.
“We are of the view that challenges in regard to the validity of the elections to the uncontested seats in the panchayats, panchayat samitis and zila parishads must also be pursued in election petitions under Section 79(1) of the Panchayat Elections Act.
“We leave it open to any person aggrieved to raise a dispute in the form of an election petition in accordance with the provisions contained in the Panchayat Elections Act,” a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud said, observing that a general observation on the uncontested seats cannot be made as it would depend on the evidence in each individual case.
The bench, however, took note of the allegations and allowed the aggrieved candidates to file election petitions to challenge the polls in the concerned courts.
Exercising the extraordinary power under Article 142 of the Constitution, it directed that the limitation period of 30 days for filing poll petitions, which has expired, would now commence from the date of notification of panchayat poll results.
Earlier, the apex court had termed the situation as “grim and grave” and asked the West Bengal State Election Commission (WBSEC) not to notify the results of those seats which have been won uncontested by ruling party members.
The court rejected the plea of BJP and CPI(M) seeking its intervention on the basis that “free and fair elections are a part of the basic feature of the Constitution”.
Justice Chandrachud, writing the verdict, said “the important consideration which must weigh with the court is that if the above submission is accepted, election results to over 20,000 seats will be set at naught in the absence of the affected parties before the Court.
“Once the election process has commenced, it is trite law that it should not be interdicted mid stage. The electoral process is afforded sanctity in a democracy. That is the reason why in a consistent line of precedent, this Court has insisted upon the discipline of the law being followed so that any challenge to the validity of an election has to be addressed by adopting the remedy of an election petition provided under the governing statute….”.
Setting aside the polls to over 20,000 seats would amount to prejudging the basic issue whether the elections were vitiated by obstructions, caused to candidates from filing nominations, in each constituency, it said.
The veracity of the allegations would depend upon evidence in each individual cases in an election petition, it said, adding that a general assumption cannot be made.
“We are emphatically of the view that any challenge to the election must take place in a manner which is known to law,” it said, adding that only political parties came to the court and individual aggrieved candidates did not.
It also said the Panchayat Elections Act was a “complete code” in regard to the conduct of the polls and resolution of disputes concerning the validity of the election.
It, however, said there was “grim situation” prevailing in the state at the time of local bodies elections as it had compelled the state poll panel to extend the date for filing nomination papers.
“Having regard to the seriousness of the allegations and bearing in mind the fact that these proceedings were pending, we are of the view that it would be necessary to exercise the power under Article 142 of the Constitution to extend the period of 30 days for the filing of election petitions in respect of the uncontested seats,” it said.
The court accepted the submission that the High Court erred in directing it to accept nomination papers through electronic forms.
“We are of the view that the High Court was in error in issuing directions for the acceptance of nominations in the electronic form. The judgement of the High Court would accordingly have to be set aside,” it said, adding that the High Court was aware that the state poll panel was constituted under Article 243 K and did not fall in the ambit of the Information Technology Act.
“While the High Court may have been guided by a desire to ensure a free and fair election, the direction to accept nominations in the election form has clearly transgressed the permissible area within which the jurisdiction under Article 226 could have been exercised,” it said.