The Supreme Court on Friday refused to pass an interim order directing the Election Commission of India to upload authenticated, scanned, and legible copies of Form 17C showing the account of votes recorded booth-wise after each phase of polling in Lok Sabha elections.

A Vacation Bench of Justices Dipankar Datta and Satish Chandra Sharma said the nation is on the eve of the sixth phase of general elections.

Mammoth polls require huge human resources. The court said it did not want to divert the attention of the Election Commission in the middle of the elections.

“Everyone is for a fair and free election. The Supreme Court cannot interrupt the conduct of elections. It can only enhance the conduct of the polls. We have to be conscious of the ground reality,” Justice Datta remarked.

The court adjourned the application simpliciter. It said interim relief sought by NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) in its application for publication of voter turnout data in Form 17C was already part of relief ought in a petition pending since 2019.

The court recorded that granting the interim prayer in an application would amount to giving the final relief in the writ petition itself.

Senior advocate Maninder Singh, for the EC, raised preliminary objections at the very start of the hearing. He said the ADR application was based on unfounded suspicions or apprehensions meant to discredit the Election Commission.

EC said ADR had suppressed the information about an April 26, 2024, judgment in the EVM-VVPAT case, in which it had discussed aspects of Form 17C.

“The April 26 judgment was holistic. ADR cannot raise supplementary points repeatedly. It cannot apply constructive res judicata in the midst of an election process involving 96 crore voters, is on. Vested interests are interfering with this festival of democracy. The court should deal with them with a heavy hand,” Singh urged.

Senior advocate AM Singhvi said for Singh to say the EVM-VVPAT judgment dealt with Form 17C was a travesty. It had made only a passing mention.

ADR, represented by senior advocate Dushyant Dave and advocates Prashant Bhushan Neha Rathi and Cheryl D’Souza, had highlighted how the voter turnout data for the first two phases of the Lok Sabha elections were published by the EC on April 30, after 11 days of the first phase of polling held on April 19 and four days after the second phase of polling held on April 26.

ADR had argued that the data published by the EC in its April 30 press release had shown a sharp increase (by about 5-6%) from the initial percentages announced by it on the polling day.

ADR had said the delay in publishing the final voter turnout data, coupled with the unusually high revision (of over 5%) in the EC press note of April 30, had raised “public suspicion and apprehensions” about the correctness of the data.

“The difference of five to six per cent between initial and absolute voter turnout details is wrong,” Singh submitted.

He said there were 8336 candidates and 10.5 lakh polling booths. 

“Every candidate has polling agents, a total of over 87,000. Everyone is checking the process, keeping an eagle’s eye on the conduct. Imagination and supposition cannot be made weapons against the EC,” Singh contended.

“The trust for the EC has to be fostered, not punctured, through such applications,” Mr. Singh said.

Dave said ADR had come to court bona fide. The NGO had an excellent record of getting good jurisprudence from the apex court.

“There is no reason for the EC to damn us. The application was not adversarial in nature,” the senior lawyer submitted.

“We are not against public interest litigations. But how many PILs are meant for publicity, private interest?” Justice Datta asked.

Mr. Dave said the EC had itself revised the percentages in the voter turnout.

“That is why we came here,” he said.

Justice Datta drew Mr. Dave’s attention to the EC affidavit, which said there was no legal or statutory mandate to publish Form 17C details. The voter turnout data were uploaded in the “non-statutory” Voter Turnout app only as a transparency initiative.

“I am forced to say in court... Someone always deters by the time such initiatives reach the half-way mark,” Justice Datta remarked.