The Kerala High Court’s decision on Friday to disqualify Indian Union Muslim League legislator KM Shaji for six years has come as a shot in the arm for the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Indian Union Muslim League is a partner in the Congress-led United Democratic Front, the main Opposition in the state.

The court said Shaji, who represents Azhikode Assembly constituency in Kannur district, had sought votes in the name of religion and spread falsehoods about his opponent from the ruling party, MV Nikesh Kumar, during the 2016 state elections. Later in the day, though, the court stayed the implementation of its verdict for two weeks, allowing Shaji to file an appeal in the Supreme Court.

Shaji had defeated Kumar, a Malayalam television journalist-turned-politician, by 2,287 votes in 2016. It was Shaji’s second consecutive win from Azhikode, a former bastion of the Left party. In 2011, he had defeated Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate M Prakashan by just 493 votes. Prior to this, the Left party had lost the seat just once after it was formed in 1977 – to MV Raghavan of the Communist Marxist Party in 1987. Raghavan had won the seat a year after he was expelled from the Left party over ideological differences. Kumar, Shaji’s opponent in 2016, is his son.

Friday’s verdict came on a petition filed by Kumar, who produced Shaji’s campaign material in which the Indian Union Muslim League leader allegedly urged Muslims to vote for him, a devout Muslim who offers namaz five times a day. The campaign poster also contained a verse from the Quran. The court said Shaji had failed to prove the pamphlets were issued without his knowledge and consent.

KM Shaji's campaign poster from the 2016 Assembly elections. It urged Muslims to vote for him – a devout Muslim who offers namaz five times a day – and pray for his victory.

Declaring Shaji’s election void, the court said he had violated Sections 123(3) and 123(4) of the Representation of Peoples Act “by appealing for votes in the name of religion and also by spreading false statements in relation of personal conduct of the opponent candidate with the intent to prejudice his winning prospects”, Live Law reported. The court also disqualified Shaji from contesting elections for six years and ordered him to pay Kumar Rs 50,000 in court expenses. However, it rejected Kumar’s plea to declare him the winner and directed the Election Commission to conduct a re-election.

However, later in the day, the court stayed the operation of its order on Shaji’s plea, under Section 116B of the Representation of Peoples Act, that he be given time to file an appeal in the Supreme Court. He pleaded that the High Court verdict would leave Azhikode without a representative, which was against public interest.

Fifth case in Kerala

Shaji is the fifth elected representative from Kerala to be disqualified by the state’s High Court. However, the Supreme Court upheld only one of the previous four disqualification orders.

The first to be disqualified by the High Court was the Indian Union Muslim League’s Malappuram MLA CH Muhammed Koya on December 19, 1977. Muthokoya Thangal of the Muslim League had filed a petition in the High Court alleging that Koya, in his capacity as chief editor of his party’s mouthpiece Chandrika, had published articles appealing to Muslims to vote for him in the Assembly elections that year. The Indian Union Muslim League was part of the Congress-led United Democratic Front then as well. However, the Supreme Court quashed the verdict on September 12, 1978.

On December 21, 1977, the High Court declared Kerala Congress leader KM Mani’s victory from Palai Assembly seat in Kottayam district void. The Kerala Congress, too, was a constituent of the United Democratic Front. Mani had defeated Independent candidate NC Joseph. PJ Antony, an elector from the constituency, had moved court alleging that Mani had taken the help of a police officer, who had misused his official position and conducted meetings with various Christian priests to woo voters from the community to ensure Mani’s victory. This time too, on September 12, 1978, the Supreme Court declared the verdict invalid.

The next case was in 1987. The High Court disqualified the Indian Union Muslim League’s MJ Zakaria Sait, who had won the same year from Mattancherry Assembly constituency in Ernakulam district. Sait’s nearest rival, TM Mohammed of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had filed a petition accusing Sait of maligning him during the campaign. The Supreme Court quashed this order, too, on April 25, 1990.

But in 2009, the Supreme Court upheld the disqualification of Indian Federal Democratic Party leader PC Thomas as the MP from Muvattupuzha. Thomas had been elected to the Lok Sabha seat in 2004 and the High Court had declared his election void in 2006 on a petition filed by his rival, PM Ismail of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He alleged Thomas had circulated leaflets and calendars with the photographs of Christian religious leaders and organised vehicles to ferry voters to polling booths. However, by the time the Supreme Court delivered its verdict, the Lok Sabha’s term had already ended.

Tough fight on the cards

Friday’s verdict sets the scene for an intense fight between the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kannur. The ruling coalition has 91 members in the 140-member Assembly while the Opposition alliance has 47. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has one seat.

To win back the seat, the ruling party has to win the support of Muslim voters. It was, thus, cautious in it response to the verdict. The party’s district secretary, P Jayarajan, sought to single out Shaji as a hardliner in his party. “Not all leaders and workers in the Indian Union Muslim League are fundamentalists, but it has fundamentalist like Shaji in its fold,” he said.

Shaji, on his part, denied he had distributed pamphlets to whip up communal sentiments during the election, and accused the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Kumar of dirty politics. “My deeds stand a testimony to my secular credentials as I have taken a stand against Muslim fundamentalist organisations,” he said. Days before the election in 2016, Shaji had denounced the Popular Front of India, stating that he did not want votes from hardline elements. His statement followed the conviction of 21 men – members of the Popular Front of India and its political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India – for being part of an arms training camp.

Shaji said he would fight to win back the seat. “I must admit I am ashamed to get such a verdict,” he told reporters. “I will fight it legally to prove my innocence.”

Kumar, on his part, expressed satisfaction with the High Court order. “I expected the court would declare me the winner,” he said. “However, I am happy the court accepted my arguments. I will continue the legal fight.”