Amaravati: The year-long tug-of-war between the government of Andhra Pradesh and State Election Commission on conduct of elections to urban and rural local bodies is set to snowball into what it appears to be a constitutional crisis.
The term of the local bodies in Andhra Pradesh expired on June 30, 2018. Since then the bodies were under the rule of special officers. The State Election Commissioner (SEC) N. Ramesh Kumar initially issued a notification on March 7, 2020 wishing to hold elections for local bodies. Later, he backed out, citing the Covid pandemic as the reason. Chief Minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy termed the SEC’s decision “arbitrary” which allegedly aimed to favour the opposition TDP. Reddy even accused Ramesh of having links with the leader of opposition N. Chandrababu Naidu.
While putting off the election process, the SEC took cognizance of the complaints of opposition parties that the nomination process went one sided in favour of the Jagan’s party mainly in the faction-hit Rayalaseema in view of the alleged partisan functioning of the official machinery.
Officials facing the music
SEC had directed then Chief Secretary Neelam Sahney for suspension of the Collectors of Guntur and Chittoor districts, Superintendent of Tirupati Urban Police and several Circle Inspectors, citing their dereliction of duties. But the Chief Secretary obviously under the influence of the Chief Minister simply ignored the SEC’s suspension orders.
His direct confrontation with the YSRC government finally led to his replacement with a former judge of the Tamil Nadu High Court Justice Kanagaraj. But Ramesh fought a spirited legal battle against his removal and finally succeeded in his reinstatement.
With the strength of the ruling of the division bench of the AP high court, Ramesh is out to complete the election process before he demits office on March 31 this year. But the Jagan government, which earlier wanted SEC to go ahead with the elections, is now opposed to the process.
Though, for the public consumption the government is citing the on-going COVID vaccination process as the reason for its objections to the elections, it’s the ego clash the government has with Ramesh that is coming in the way.
By exercising powers under the Article 243-K of the Constitution, Ramesh Kumar called for a meeting with the Principal Secretary, Gopala Krishna Dwevedi, and secretary, Girija Sankar, of the Panchayat Raj department on Friday to kick-start the election process. Both the officers later received a memo for skipping the meeting from the SEC. Unions of government employees too joined the game of one-upmanship by siding with the government, showing reluctance to discharge election duties in the pandemic times.
Regardless of the hiccups, the SEC is scheduled to issue a fresh election notification on Saturday.
The candidates owing their allegiance to various political parties obviously do not want to miss a chance to file their nomination papers before the deadline so as to stay relevant in the poll battle. The leaders from the Jagan’s party too will find it difficult to resist the temptation just because their leader has reservations over the elections. This, a sort of Catch-22 situation, may come to the Ramesh Kumar’s advantage in the turf war.
The SEC, though constitutionally vested with the conduct of elections, has to invariably depend on the state government to accomplish the gigantic task as it does not have its own mechanism. The SEC requires an army of government personnel to man the polling booths on the day and oversee the process of nominations and scrutiny of the same, besides large contingents of police to ensure a smooth and fair polling.
The Jagan government which is stretching the issue beyond a point is pinning all its hopes on the fate of a special leave petition which it filed in the Supreme Court against the ruling of the high court’s division bench. The petition is listed for hearing on Monday. It is yet to be seen whether the Supreme Court will reverse the judgment of the high court which in unequivocal terms said the conduct of the elections is the sole prerogative of the SEC.