The Supreme Court Monday stayed the Madhya Pradesh high court order asking political parties to conduct their campaign for the November 3 assembly bypolls virtually instead of holding physical rallies due to COVID-19.
A bench headed by Justice A M Khanwilkar asked the Election Commission of India to take an appropriate decision with regard to political rallies as per law and keeping in mind COVID-19 guidelines. The bench, also comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Sanjiv Khanna, said the high court must have felt that situation on ground was not changing.
Senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for ECI, said it is following all the directions issued by the State Disaster Management Authority and its own norms for conduct of polls amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bench told Dwivedi that ECI must ensure that elections are held as per the laws and it may stay the high court order but the poll panel will have to act as per the law, so that the situation on the ground
"We will stay the high court order and will leave the issue to the ECI to ensure that everything is done as per the law," the bench observed.
The top court also asked senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Madhya Pradesh Energy minister Pradyuman Singh Tomar, to make a representation to the ECI for loss of time in electioneering due to the high court order.
He said that for electioneering two-three more hours a day be allowed as seven days' time have been lost because of the high court order.
The bench said, "We will clarify that whatever contention is raised by the parties to the ECI, shall be taken note by it."
The bench, hearing the pleas of ECI and Tomar challenging the high court's October 20 order, posted the matter for further hearing after six weeks and permitted the ECI to take decisions as per law to ensure free and fair election.
It said political leaders may give representation to the ECI on loss of time for electioneering due to the high court order.
The bye-elections to 28 seats in Madhya Pradesh will decide the fate of the seven-month-old Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.
Twenty-five seats had fallen vacant after the defection of 22 Congress MLAs -- 19 of whom backed Jyotiraditya Scindia -- and three others later.
Three other seats have fallen vacant after the deaths of sitting legislators.
The poll panel has assailed the HC order, saying the conduct and management of elections are overseen by it under the Constitution and Article 329 of the Constitution puts an express bar on judicial interference in midst of electoral process.
The plea said the poll panel's COVID-19 guidelines on election rallies or meetings were formulated on September 25 in exercise of its powers.
As per guidelines and the SOP of the state government, political gatherings of over 100 people with safety measures can be allowed, it said.
Tomar, who is contesting as a BJP candidate from Gwalior constituency for the bypoll in Madhya Pradesh, submitted in his plea that the high court has erred in its finding as the ECI under Article 324 of Constitution has issued its COVID-19 guidelines dated September 29, permitting "physical gatherings" for election campaigns subject to specified restrictions.
"The impugned interim order has violated the petitioner's right to conduct election campaign through physical gatherings as permitted by the Election Commission; Central Government and State of Madhya Pradesh," he said in his plea.
He said that various interim directions passed by the high court on October 20 are in violation of COVID-19 guidelines dated September 29 issued by ECI and guidelines issued by the central government on October 8 and state government respectively.
Tomar sought stay of the operation of impugned interim order dated October 20, and further proceedings on the PIL before the high court.