Vijayawada: With the Supreme Court favouring elections to local bodies, Andhra Pradesh State Election Commissioner (SEC) Nimmagadda Ramesh Kumar appears to have scored a victory over the Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy government, with which he had been at loggerheads on the issue.
The division bench of the apex court, comprising Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hrishikesh Roy, on Monday, dismissed the petition filed by the Andhra Pradesh government challenging the verdict of the Andhra Pradesh high court, which had allowed the SEC to conduct local body elections in February.
The Supreme Court bench further observed, “We cannot be a part of this ego battle,” saying that the courts cannot interfere in the job of the Election Commission after a notification had been issued. The apex court rejected the contention of the government to put the elections on hold in view of the vaccination programme, referring to the elections held in Kerala, Rajasthan and Telangana.
In the wake of the judgment of the high court, Kumar had issued the notification for the four-phase elections to village panchayats. The elections will be held in four phases on February 5, 9, 13 and 17 from 6.30 am to 3.30 pm. The model code of conduct (MCC) will be implemented in poll-bound areas from Saturday. Counting of votes will begin at 4 pm and declaration of results will take place on the same day as the polls.
The initial notification for holding the gram panchayat polls in Andhra Pradesh was declared on March 7, 2020. However, the state government had cited the COVID-19 pandemic and contested the SEC’s decision to hold elections. Since then the Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy government and the SEC remained poles apart, fighting many a legal battle on the elections with the government officials siding with the government.
The employees’ associations, representing the state secretariat and the NGOs, siding with the government, even passed resolutions against SEC Kumar’s decision to hold the elections. The Supreme Court also took serious note of this.
Top officials dropped
In an apparent bid to bring things under control, the SEC reportedly “censured” two top officials of the Panchayat Raj department – Gopalakrishna Dwivedi, principal secretary, and commissioner M. Girija Sankar – citing their “failure” to update the electoral rolls. They had been assigned the task to add three lakh new voters to the list
With his alleged tough posturing, Ramesh Kumar, the otherwise low-profile and unassuming 1984-batch IAS officer, has appeared to be a hard nut to crack.
The SEC has reportedly also asked chief secretary Adityanath Das to send him a panel of three officers, substituting Dwivedi and Girija Shankar.
One Dhulipala Akhila, a 19-year old resident of Namburu from the Guntur district, has meanwhile filed a petition in the high court seeking to become a fresh voter. She expressed her anguish that she has been denied her voting right due to the failure on the part of authorities to revise the electoral rolls.
SEC under fire from YSRC
In a swift move, the SEC bypassed director general of police (DGP), D. Gautam Sawang, who it also accused of inaction and failing to check the excesses of the ruling YSR Congress activists in the initial stage of polling process, by appointing N. Sanjay, inspector general (IG) of police, Guntur range as a special officer. Sanjay is empowered to monitor security measures during elections and brief the SEC from time to time on measures in place to contain electoral malpractices.
SEC Ramesh Kumar also removed the collectors and superintendents of police (SPs) of Guntur and Chittoor districts and several other police officers from the election duties, citing their alleged bias in favour of the ruling party during the phase-1 election process for which the notification was issued on March 7, 2020.
Minister for panchayati raj, Peddireddy Ramachandra Reddy, strongly criticised Ramesh Kumar for shifting senior officials from election duties allegedly under the influence of the leader of the opposition, N. Chandrababu Naidu.
Professor K. Nageshwar, a Hyderabad-based analyst, told The Wire that the Jagan government despite having a brute majority in the state assembly has lost the perception battle with the SEC.
“The government-SEC turf war left a takeaway: one has to honour the divergent roles vested with different organs of the constitution, such as the judiciary, election commission, legislature, etc.,” Nageswar observed.
Telangana government headed by K. Chandrasekhar Rao in July 2019 had brought in a new Telangana Municipalities Act by amending the Section 195, in a move to usurp the powers of the SEC in conducting elections to urban local bodies. But the then governor of Telangana, E.S.L. Narasimhan, returned the Act without giving his assent.
Narasimhan observed that the particular piece of legislation was not in line with the spirit of the constitution and would encroach upon the powers of the SEC. The Telangana government restored powers to the SEC by enacting another legislation in September 2017.
Syed Aminul Hasan Jafri, a senior journalist, told The Wire that Jagan could have averted the confrontation with SEC Ramesh Kumar and saved himself from embarrassment by taking a leaf out of his father Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy’s book. YSR served as chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh from 2004-09.
“YSR had displayed statesmanship by honouring then SEC I.V. Subba Rao’s direction to shift then collector Pravin Prakash out of election duties twice. Once, during the by-poll in Visakhapatnam-I Assembly segment in 2006 and later in Rangareddy district in 2008 in the run-up to the general elections after his neutrality as the district election authority was questioned,” pointed out Jafri.
The YSR Congress government, headed by Jaganmohan Reddy, had in fact sacked Ramesh Kumar as the SEC through an ordinance in April 2020, when the latter did not toe its line to defer the local bodies elections then.