On October 1, more than three years after Congress leader Mairembam Prithviraj Singh’s election to the Manipur assembly had been challenged by a rival, the Supreme Court finally heard the dispute. The petition alleged that in his pre-poll affidavit, Singh had falsely claimed to hold an MBA degree. Like so many other cases of this nature, the petition had been delayed due to repeated adjournments by the Manipur High Court. The matter still hasn't been resolved. The Supreme Court gave the Manipur High Court until February to dispose of the petition.

Singh’s case is not an exception. Six years and a Lok Sabha election later, the courts are yet to dispose of petitions challenging the election of former Union ministers P Chidambaram and MK Alagiri as well as current Union external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Most election petitions drag on for years, with the outcome most often undecided even after the legislator completes his term.

These inordinate delays have the potential of tarnishing “the purity of parliamentary democracy”, the bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla C Pant observed in the case of Mairembam Prithviraj Singh. They said, “It is quite clear that an election petition has to be decided in quite promptitude as there is an obligation cast upon the court to dispose of the same within a period of six months.”

Six-month deadline

In this recommendation, the Supreme Court was echoing the advice of the Law Commission, which has repeatedly stated that an election petition must be disposed of within half a year. Verdicts on poll petitions must be delivered within 90 days of the conclusion of arguments being made in court, it said, and appeals against High Court judgements in such matters should be filed within 30 days of the verdict. The Supreme Court should then decide on the appeal within three months.

As is obvious, this schedule is seldom followed. This is because election petitions are not a priority in most High Courts. This can be partly explained by the severe shortages of judges in the high courts coupled with the large backlog of cases related to other matters.

Indians elections offer many opportunities for irregularity.  The Representation of People Act 1951 lays down a list of corrupt practices. These include bribing voters, seeking votes by criticising religion, misinformation in the candidates’ affidavit or concealing information. If MPs or MLAs are found guilty of corrupt practices, their elections could be declared void and they could be disqualified from contesting polls for six years.

Delaying tactics

But as the cases filed against are not decided within the prescribed six months, it has become the norm for candidates to enjoy their full terms.

Expressing concern at the “hoodwinking” of the system by Singh, the Supreme Court bench also said the delay in deciding on an election petition leaves the impression that the elected candidate “has the skillfulness to enjoy his full term without being concerned or bothered about the challenge to his election”.

Harish Salve, former Solicitor General of India and a constitutional law expert, assisted the court in the matter. He told the court that the truth is of paramount importance for those in public life. Arguing that “half truth is worse than silence”, Salve said that candidates who are not transparent in their conduct had the potential to create anarchy.

Such delays, said senior constitutional lawyer PP Rao, have made a mockery of election laws. They would continue, he said, unless each high court sets up a special bench for election petitions.