The Supreme Court has made an unprecedented intervention in the Chandigarh mayoral election. Coming as it does just months ahead of the general elections, the lengths to which the bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, and Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra went to ensure the integrity of the electoral process sends a clear message. It was a case of one political party subverting the electoral process.

The Court proved that it would not shy away from going the extra mile to protect the sanctity of democratic institutions and processes. On the face of it, elections in a small municipality hardly merit national attention. But the circumstances of this particular case were alarming. In the polling held on January 30, the BJP had 14 councillors in the 35-member House and an additional vote of the Chandigarh MP Kirron Kher who is an ex officio member of the House. The Shiromani Akali Dal’s one vote was also in favour of the BJP. On the other side, AAP had 13 councillors. But it had stitched up an alliance with the Congress which had seven, making this the first tangible test of the INDIA grouping. Together, they had a clear majority of 20. But the returning officer Anil Masih, who is a member of the BJP’s minority cell, declared eight votes invalid and the BJP emerged victorious. The Congress and AAP candidate moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court and later the Supreme Court with a video showing Masih had tampered with the ballot papers.

The BJP was prepared with what they presumed would be the outcome — the Court would declare this election invalid and there would be a re-election. That three AAP councillors have since joined the BJP does not appear to be a coincidence. Be that as it may, the judges waded right into what they described as a clear case of “subterfuge”, playing the video depicting the returning officer’s tampering with the ballot papers in the open court. Masih was asked to depose before the bench which questioned him about each of the ballot papers. The Court used its power under Article 142 of the Constitution to do “complete justice”. “This Court is duty-bound in exercise of its powers to do complete justice under Article 142 to ensure that the process of electoral democracy is not thwarted by such subterfuge. Allowing such a state of affairs to take place would be destructive of the most valued principles of democracy our country depends on,” said Chief Justice Chandrachud.

This was the “exceptional circumstance” forcing the Court to act literally as a returning officer, count the eight invalidated votes as valid and declare the AAP candidate as winner. The Court has initiated proceedings against the returning officer. This action comes as timely reminder that sanctity of the electoral process is central to the functioning of institutional democracy. Such malpractices tend to undermine confidence of the people in the electoral process. That’s why the apex court’s intervention becomes crucial.