Hyderabad: Are unanimous elections in local bodies an indication of consensus among the people or the unprecedented violence perpetrated by the party in power to prevent others from filing nominations? The Andhra Pradesh local body elections have witnessed unprecedented violence, police inaction, the arrest of the Leader of the Opposition, and admonition by the High Court. The State Election Commissioner (SEC) took a sensational decision to postpone the local elections and transfer officials, which was approved by the Supreme Court.
The violent state of affairs in AP was sadly reflected in the letter from state election commissioner N. Ramesh Kumar to Union Home Secretary on 18 March. The gravity of the situation could be gauged by the fact that the election commissioner himself is pleading to the Centre to protect his life and his family from attacks by the ruling party.
First, the AP High Court has admonished the government over law and order and in a week, the SEC got relief from the Supreme Court which vindicated his authority to postpone elections on the ground of Coronavirus. However, it advised the SEC to consult with the state and finalise the election dates. On the plea that many developmental activities have been suspended due to the imposition of the model code of conduct (MCC), the SC directed the MCC be revoked though it could reimpose it four weeks before the notified date of the polls. The SC also advised the government to continue the measures in place to curb the spread of the virus but consult the SEC before taking up any new developmental activities.
Another vindication for the SEC was the validation of his order to transfer police and revenue officials of several districts, which was subjected to severe criticism by the government and ruling party leaders.
Andhra Pradesh High Court on 12 March pulled up DGP Gautam Sawang. The CJ of AP read out Section 151 of the CrPC to the DGP, which says, "A police officer knowing of a design to commit any cognizable offense may arrest, without orders from a magistrate and without a warrant, the person so designing, if it appears to such officer that the commission of the offense cannot be otherwise prevented." The HC also questioned why he did not take disciplinary action against Vishakhapatnam police officers who violated the law by illegal detaining TDP president Chandrababu Naidu. The court warned, “If you don’t take action which you are supposed to, we will take action.”
A march of over 500 police personnel in a village to curb protests against the moving of the state capital also came under serious admonition from the High Court which asked, "Why such acts in a democracy?"
The election commissioner perceived a threat to his life after verbal assaults and the threat of physical attacks, which he explained in a five-page letter to the Home secretary. He explained the violence and abusive language of ruling party members against him and sought protection by Central forces.
The local body elections, which were to be completed in three phases by 31 March, were vitiated with widespread violence during the first phase of nominations. Several TDP leaders, including an advocate, were attacked with iron rods and wooden logs, and many were injured. Ruling party men chased Opposition leaders who visited the place after hearing that YSRCP activists were not allowing local TDP candidates to file nominations. Such violence is reported at least in three districts, where TDP men were physically assaulted because they tried to contest despite the advice of YSRCP men. There were also allegations that TDP candidates were arrested in false cases to prevent them from filing nominations. At another place, the nomination papers of a TDP leader were snatched away.
The SEC has justified his orders to transfer the collectors of two districts, two SPs, two deputy SPs, and three circle inspectors besides suspending a CI for gross failure and complicity after there was only a single valid nomination in majority wards due to violence. But these transfers were not given effect because of the pendency of litigation.
The SEC wrote: "The stage one of the elections itself witnessed unprecedented violence and intimidation by the ruling party with the active connivance of police personnel as alleged by all the Opposition parties, big and small, in one voice. There were about 35 incidents of prevention of nominations, 23 incidents of forceful withdrawals, and 55 instances of violence targeting the principal Opposition parties, i.e. the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party-Janasena. The norms of peaceful and orderly conduct of elections were completely vitiated."
As evidence, the SEC furnished data of "unanimous" elections of MPTC members where 2,362 out of 9,696 (24%) were unanimously elected. The number was 346 out of 1,6548 (2%) in 2014. There is a huge increase in unanimous elections of ZPTC members also which increased from 0.09 per cent to 19 per cent. The SEC pointed out that in Kadapa district, where Chief Minister Jagan hails from, 79 per cent of MPTC members and 76 per cent of ZPTC members were elected "unanimously", resulting in the ruling YSRCP winning the Zilla Parishad even before a single vote was cast. The SEC also suspected a game by the ruling party to organise 70 per cent unanimous elections in the last phase of the gram panchayat elections fought on non-party lines.
The SEC pointed out that a draconian ordinance was brought in recently to imprison candidates for up to three years and impose fine up to Rs. 10,000 in addition to disqualification if they were found harbouring inducements of liquor and money. Mr Ramesh Kumar mentioned that cases have come to light where ruling party goons have planted liquor at the homes of Opposition candidates, leading the police to arrest them.
Mr Ramesh Kumar, in his letter, explained how the CM had attacked him and used offensive language, casting aspersions and prejudice, which was followed by his Cabinet ministers and even the Speaker of the Assembly heaping the choicest abuses and attributing mala fide to him. The abusive attacks continued with MLAs and others joining in, mouthing the most unbecoming and uncouth utterances against him.
Despite the judgements of the Supreme Court and the AP High Court empowering him, the SEC wrote that he had been receiving repeated warnings and threats to demoralize him and force him to reverse his actions. Mr Ramesh Kumar finds it a testing time beset with challenges and acrimony as the government lacks the grace to treat Constitutional bodies with due dignity and deference. He wrote: “Needless to say, the stakes are very high for the ruling party to intimidate, coerce me, and bring me around forcibly to do their bidding, which I am not prepared to do under any circumstances.” He explained that he would not dare venture outside without full protection and that he and his family would be completely vulnerable after the elections were over. He expressed doubts that the state police protection was not equal to the threats he was facing, which include physical attacks, which could be realized because of the intolerance of the leaders and their vindictive nature. He listed the causes and sought security for an extended duration beyond the elections.