While the Election Commission and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan may feel aggrieved at an order of the Gwalior bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court restraining district magistrates of nine districts from permitting election rallies, it must fairly be conceded that they are protesting far more than the facts justify.
Former Chief Minister Kamal Nath and Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar may feel similarly aggrieved at the court’s instruction that cases be registered against them. Yet the fact is that the Court had put the state, political parties and their leaders on notice several weeks ago.
Acting on a Public Interest Litigation initiated by an advocate on 11 September, more than five weeks ago, the Court had appointed an Amicus Curiae to examine the petitioner’s grievance that political gatherings were taking place in the state without public health protocols in place. The Court had issued notices to the state’s Chief Secretary, District Collectors and Superintendents of Police.
Since all officials come under charge of the Election Commission once the poll process is initiated, neither Nirvachan Sadan nor the Chief Minister can claim to be unaware of the concern expressed by the Court. On 29 September, the Court considered the report of the Amicus Curiae that pointed out several breaches of Covid-19 protocols.
After hearing District Magistrates of five districts, the Court on 4 October felt constrained to pass an interim order that said: “The DMs of the nine districts falling within the territorial jurisdiction of this Bench i.e. Gwalior, Guna, Morena, Bhind, Vidisha, Ashok Nagar, Datia, Shivpuri and Sheopur are directed by writ of mandamus to register offences by invoking penal provisions of Disaster Management Act and the Indian Penal Code (IPC) not only against the defaulting members of the congregation but also against political/governmental/ State or social functionaries in whose name or on whose behest and behalf the said congregation takes place, failing which the DMs of the concerned nine districts shall be liable for contempt of this Court and shall also be exposed to the rigours of penal provisions of relevant laws.”
The political class, including leaders of the BJP and Congress, were thus fairly warned that the Court would not allow public health to be sacrificed at the altar of politicking. Yet, in utter disregard of the order, political rallies were held, and safety norms flouted while masks were reduced to ornaments for the chin. It is at this stage that the Bench intervened to say physical rallies be restricted.
To feel aggrieved, as Mr Chauhan is, by the application of the order to some districts and not others (that is districts which fall outside the Bench’s jurisdiction), or to suggest that since Bihar is getting away with flouting safety norms so must Madhya Pradesh, is both dishonest and disingenuous. The Election Commission, too, has failed in its responsibility of conducting elections with adequate safety measures in place.