The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed the Andhra Pradesh government’s plea to postpone panchayat polls – due next month – because of the Covid pandemic, pointing out that even larger electoral exercises had been successfully held despite far more difficult conditions.
The court also refused to let itself get caught in an “ego battle” and expressed disappointment over resolutions against the State Election Commissioner, N Ramesh Kumar, who had ordered the polls to be held as per schedule.
“Ego problems between two authorities is leading to lawlessness. We cannot allow lawlessness… how can resolutions be passed against N Ramesh Kumar? We cannot be part of this ego battle… we can’t take over the jobs of everyone,” a bench of Justices SK Kaul and Hrishikesh Roy said.
The SEC, who is due to retire by April, and the state government have been at odds over the polls.
The state wanted the polls to be held at the start of the pandemic, but the SEC was against it.
In May, the ruling YSR Congress removed him, alleging his actions were politically motivated. This was later countered by the High Court, which ordered him reinstated.
Now, the two sides have swapped positions.
Earlier in the Supreme Court, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, representing the state, asked the court to defer the elections till March, arguing that the vaccine drive would end by February 28.
“Very difficult to blame or judge anyone. States have conducted elections during COVID-19. Even Kerala did and there is a spike now but we can’t say polls were the reason,” the court responded.
The court also said it could not interfere in every political or administrative issue.
“We cannot take over jobs of everyone. There are some political and administrative decisions. Some decisions will be taken by the Election Commission. This makes me feel this (the Covid pandemic) is not the issue.. it is something else,” the court said.
On Sunday, Venkatram Reddy, the Chairperson of a federation of Andhra Pradesh government employees, re leased a video statement questioning the SEC’s decision to push on with the polls.
“This was putting the lives of staff at risk,” he said, “We are requesting the SEC to put on hold local body elections for two months… when vaccination of government employees will be completed.”
The Andhra Pradesh government had moved the Supreme Court after an order by the Division Bench of the High Court last week allowed polls to proceed. The state questioned Mr Kumar’s medical expertise to take such a decision as a vaccination drive is underway.
“Kumar is not qualified – having no medical expertise – to decide whether elections ought to be conducted at a time when vaccination drive is on full swing,” the petition stated, adding that the lives of “lakhs of citizens” could be endangered.
The petition also said the state police, needed to ensure fair conduct of elections, was also required to ensure storage and transport of vaccines.
The local body elections are due to be held in four phases – on February 5, 9, 13 and 17.
Following the Supreme Court order today, the SEC said the model code of conduct had come into force and directed ministers not to be associated with distribution of welfare benefits in rural areas, so as not to affect voters.