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Lessons from Chandigarh Mayoral Election

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
04 Mar 2024

Although the political drama enacted in the Chandigarh Mayoral election on 30 January and the consequent Supreme Court verdict concerns a municipal corporation, their ramifications are far-reaching. Political parties and other stakeholders can learn a few lessons from this sordid episode.

The media widely reported that the returning officer Anil Masih deliberately invalidated and discarded eight votes cast in favour of AAP-Congress combined candidate Kuldeep Kumar and declared Manoj Sonkar of the BJP, who secured 16 votes. If 8 votes were not tampered with and invalidated, Kuldeep Kumar would have got 20 votes out of a total of 36 and won the election. The video of Anil Masih defacing 8 votes and invalidating them was widely circulated on social media platforms. It was a deliberate attempt to steal the election.

Since the aggrieved party AAP could not get immediate relief from the Haryana-Punjab High Court, it approached the Supreme Court. A Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra delivered a verdict, declaring AAP's Kuldeep Kumar the winner. It also initiated the prosecution of Anil Masih, the returning officer.

The apex court did not quash the entire electoral exercise; it restricted itself to dealing with the wrongdoings in the counting process, which led to the invalidation of eight votes cast in Kuldeep Kumar's favour. The bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud said that it was evident that Masih made a deliberate attempt to deface eight ballot papers. In an earlier hearing, the SC had termed the action of Anil Masih a "mockery of democracy" and "murdering democracy".

Anil Masih was designated as a nominated councillor in the general house of the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation in 2022, representing the BJP's minority cell. The Punjab governor is the administrator of Chandigarh Union Territory, and he selects the returning officer for the mayoral election. It is evident from the circumstances that Masih would not have committed such blatant fraud if he had not had the assurance of support from the higher-ups of the BJP. While the SC was hearing the case, the BJP ensured that 3 AAP councillors switched to its camp, presuming that the SC would declare a re-poll. Fortunately, the SC did not cancel the election, considering the potential for horse trade.

The studied silence of the BJP leaders, including the Prime Minister, vindicates the hypothesis that Masih did the dirty work on behalf of someone else. If the BJP had no role in this sordid drama, it would have extolled the SC verdict and condemned the act of Anil Masih.

Renowned political scientist and writer Pratap Bhanu Mehta's article, "A Long Institutional Road", in The Indian Express on 23 February 2024, has highlighted the dangerous implications of the Chandigarh episode. "In a way, the Chandigarh election case, or arguably the electoral bonds case, are those where even the façade (of democracy) is so blatantly violated that the system cannot claim legitimacy even on its own terms. Or arguably, the reversal of the decision to release the perpetrators in the Bilkis Bano case was about signalling that the lines that maintain the façade of the system have been crossed", he wrote.

The most important lesson from this sleazy episode is for the opposition political parties. The BJP can go to any length to capture power using any means. One can see ample evidence during the last ten years. It has been proved conclusively that the BJP has no qualms about undermining democratically elected governments in different states. BJP has proved adept in torpedoing opposition governments in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Two main methods are used to wean away many MLAs from the ruling opposition parties. Investigative agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED), Income Tax Department, etc., are used to investigate alleged corruption charges against the opposition leaders under the threat of arrest and incarceration. Sometimes, the MLAs of opposition parties are offered vast amounts of money. Once the MLAs of an opposition party cross over to the ruling party, all investigations are stopped, or the cases against them are put in cold storage. The opposition parties euphemistically called this method the "Washing Machine" of the BJP.

The governors appointed by the central government function as agents of the BJP to weaken the opposition party governments by creating all possible hurdles, including not signing the bills passed by the state assemblies.

Poaching opposition party MLAs is an ongoing pursuit for the BJP, and it does this relentlessly. The Congress and Samajwadi Party (SP) candidates were defeated in the elections held to the Rajya Sabha on 27 February in Himachal Pradesh and UP, respectively, because of the cross-voting by the MLAs of the Congress and the SP.

Unfortunately, the opposition parties have not realized the danger at their doorstep, and they cannot overcome their narrow and short-term interests to oppose the BJP policies to weaken democratic institutions on which their very existence hinges. In the words of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, "There is no serious political outrage or mobilization on issues of electoral integrity; there is little sense that the ruling party will pay the price".

The opposition parties have to consider the possibility of misusing Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Technical experts have pointed out the urgent need to ensure that the voting machines are made tamper-proof. There should be a mechanism by which the voter receives a printout of the vote, which should be counted along with the votes to rule out the possibility of any mismatches.

Finally, the opposition parties must heed what Suhas Palshikar wrote in his article in The Indian Express on 25 February, "In a Corner of its Making". They must balance their self-interest and expansion with the need to work together. Right now, their expansion hinges on their ability to preserve themselves, and their self-preservation, in turn, depends on preserving a minimal democratic framework which includes robust institutions and respect for the rule of law. Preserving democratic institutions and processes as envisaged in the Indian Constitution should be their top priority. The opposition parties tempted to shake hands with the BJP must learn from the experience of the political parties that aligned with the BJP in the past and got emaciated. Akali Dal in Punjab and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu are examples.

There is a lesson for the minorities from the Chandigarh episode. They have to realize that the BJP has not publicly declared that it doesn't want to make Muslims and Christians second-class citizens without any rights and privileges, as written by their guru, Golwalkar. BJP's attempt to co-opt some members from the minority communities, especially Christians, is to be suspected. Anil Masih, a Christian, was used to do dirty work for the BJP. A lesson from this incident is that ambitious and self-centred Christians could be used to discredit the Christian community's moral integrity.

The Christian religious leaders who hobnob with the BJP have to be aware of the violence perpetrated on Christians in Manipur for about ten months and the harassment of Christians, priests and nuns in central and north India by the BJP governments and their cronies. They also have to understand the consequences of the Hindutva ideology of the BJP on the minorities in India.

Civil society also has an important lesson from the Chandigarh mayoral election fiasco. In a democracy, the right to vote and choose their representatives is a constitutional right of all citizens. The right to vote becomes meaningless without a free and fair election and a level playing ground for all the players. Along with the political parties, civil society must raise its voice for a free and fair election process.

Contrary to the verdict of the Supreme Court, the BJP Central government passed a law favouring the central government in appointing the members of the Election Commission (EC). According to the Supreme Court verdict, the members of the EC have to be appointed by the President of India on the advice of a panel that includes the prime minister, leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha or leader of the largest party in the Lok Sabha and the chief justice of India. As per the law passed by the BJP government, the Chief Justice of India is replaced by a Union cabinet minister. In this context, the impartiality of the EC is in question. Hence, there is a need for civil society to be vigilant so that the whole election process remains free and fair.

Sporadic protests have been taking place against the use of EVMs, but they have no considerable impact, as they do not get the support of the main political parties. The opposition parties and the civil society have to pressure the EC so that EVMs are not tampered with. As the Lok Sabha election is very close, replacing EVMs with ballot papers may be challenging. Still, the suggestion that the voters receive printouts of their votes and count the printouts along with the electronic ballots should be accepted to clamp down on at least some amount of tampering.

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