Explained: SC RULING ON GOA MUNICIPAL COUNCIL WARD RESERVATION AND ROLE OF STATE POLL COMMISSIONER

The apex court’s ruling has created ripples in Goa at a time politicians have hit the ground ahead of the local body polls that are being treated as a “semi-final” before legislative assembly election in 2022.

BY MAYURA JANWALKAR

Directing the Goa government to redo the exercise of delimitation and reservation of municipal wards for women and SC/ST candidates in five municipal councils that were set to go to polls next week, the Supreme Court said that State Election Commissioners (SECs) across the country should be independent and not those holding office with the Central government or a state government.

The apex court’s ruling has created ripples in Goa at a time politicians have hit the ground ahead of the local body polls that are being treated as a “semi-final” before legislative assembly election in 2022.

Has the SC judgment come as a setback to the Pramod Sawant-led Goa government?

The Goa government had moved the top court after the Goa Bench of the Bombay High Court quashed and set aside an order of the Goa government determining the reservation of seats in wards of five of the 11 municipal councils set to go to polls on March 20. The high court directed the Director, Municipal Administration to carry out the reservation of the wards afresh “rectifying gross illegalities” in the reservation of wards. A clutch of petitions were filed by Goans from the five municipal limits, including candidates backed by the Congress and the Goa Forward Party (GFP), urging the court to set aside a February 4 order of the Director of Municipal Administration in which, the petitioners alleged, wards were arbitrarily reserved and constitutional provisions mandating 33 percent seats for women and rotation of seats reserved for SC/ST candidates were not followed. Concurring with the findings of the high court, the Supreme Court was also of the opinion that the course adopted by the state government violates the constitutional mandate of law in reserving one-third seats for women in all local body polls. It directed the state government to carry out the exercise of reservation of wards afresh and issue a fresh election schedule.

The state government that had mainly contended that the courts cannot interfere in the election schedule because they were imminent, had to, however, eat the humble pie on Friday. Sawant also made a statement that mistakes made by the Directorate of the Municipal Administration will be rectified, even as opposition parties continued to tear into him on Saturday.

What did the Supreme Court say about the role of State Election Commissioner (SEC)?

The fact that the SEC in Goa was none other than its law secretary, the SC said, was the “most disturbing feature of the case”. “The SEC has to be a person who is independent of the State Government as he is an important constitutional functionary who is to oversee the entire election process in the state qua panchayats and municipalities,” a bench of Justices Rohinton Nariman, B R Gavai and Hrishikesh Roy observed. They said that the SEC had been equated with a high court judge. “Giving an additional charge of such an important and independent constitutional office to an officer who is directly under the control of the State Government is, in our view, a mockery of the constitutional mandate,” the judges wrote in their 96-page judgment. They directed the Goa government to appoint an independent person as SEC at the earliest.

The court noted that the law secretary, an IAS officer, was appointed SEC by the Goa Governor on November 3, 2020, handing him an additional duty. Two days later, administrators were appointed to municipal councils that had completed term and in January, the SEC postponed elections to these councils until April. On February 4 , the Director of Municipal Administration reserved the wards, a notification that was contested in the High Court in petitions filed between February 9 and 12. Even while the petitions were pending before the court, the SEC announced the election schedule to 11 municipal councils on February 22.

How many local bodies are going to polls in Goa and what happens next?

In February, the SEC had announced elections to the Corporation of the City of Panaji (CCP) and 11 municipal councils. The reservation of wards in five councils – Sanguem, Mormugao, Margao and Quepem in South Goa and Mapusa in North Goa – was found faulty by the SC and hence, polls that were to be held in these councils on March 21, will no longer take place. The Goa government will have to redo the delimitation and ward reservation exercise and the SEC will then have to announce a fresh election schedule for these five councils that will have to go to polls before April 30, as directed by the SC. The elections to the other local bodies will be held on March 20.

What is the political fallout of the SC ruling?

The SC ruling has come as a shot in the arm for opposition parties including the Congress and the GFP that went to court over the issue. Opposition parties faulted Sawant’s leadership and clamoured for his resignation in the light of the verdict. Although local body polls are not contested on political party symbols, MLAs and political leaders across parties have been campaigning on the ground since the polls were announced.

Goa Pradesh Congress Committee president Girish Chodankar said on Saturday that with growing support, the Congress party was sure to win 23 to 26 of the 40 seats in the assembly elections next year and Goans will “not allow the BJP to form a back-door government” by manipulation and defection. Calling the SC ruling a “knockout punch” for the BJP government in the state, GFP leader Vijai Sardesai said that six other councils will still go to polls on March 20. “If elections are held in other six councils and results are declared, the trends in that can have a bandwagon effect on the five municipals councils.” He said that the government should also postpone the polls to the other local bodies or at least refrain from declaring the poll results until polls in the other five councils are also concluded. After the HC’s judgment, the opposition had also accused the BJP government of being anti-women for reserving less than one-third wards for women in local body elections.

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