Political Parties Not Barred From Contesting Municipal Elections: Delhi High Court

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The petitioner sought to refrain the SEC of Delhi from allocating reserved symbols of political parties to candidates in the elections for the MCD, arguing that such allocation infringed upon their Fundamental Rights under Article 14 of the Constitution

In a recent judgment, the Delhi High Court held that no prohibition under Article 243ZA or 243R of the Constitution prevents political parties from participating in municipal elections. The court noted that the State Elections Commission’s grant of recognition to political parties for municipal elections falls within its ambit and does not transgress its legal authority. 

The bench headed by Acting Chief Justice Manmohan and Justice Manmeet Pritam Singh Arora held, “The recognition granted by SEC to the political parties to contest municipal elections is within its jurisdiction and not ultra vires. There is no bar under Article 243ZA or 243R on political parties from contesting municipal elections”. 

One Lokesh Kumar filed a petition challenging the validity of Rule 15 and Rule 24 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation (Election of Councillors) Rules, 2012 (Rules). His plea sought to overturn Part-I of the Nomination Paper contained in Form No.2 of the Rules of 2012 on the grounds of it being unconstitutional. Additionally, Kumar urged the State Election Commission of Delhi (SEC) to refrain from assigning reserved symbols of political parties to contesting candidates and to conduct elections for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) without these symbols, citing violations of his Fundamental Rights under Article 14 of the Constitution.

Representing Lokesh Kumar, Advocate Hargyan Singh Gahlot argued that the contested Regulations impede the conduct of fair and open municipal elections, contravening Articles 243-ZA and 243-K of the Constitution. He contended that these Regulations attempt to establish a category of candidates not outlined or acknowledged under Part IX or IX-A of the Constitution. Furthermore, he maintained that including reserved symbols of political parties on the list of candidates creates an unfair advantage, breaching Article 14 of the Constitution.

The court took cognizance of the fact that the Constitution recognizes the presence and operation of political parties solely in 1985, with the incorporation of the 10th Schedule by the Constitution (Fifty-second Amendment) Act, 1985. This amendment renderes political defections as a basis for disqualifying membership in Parliament and State Legislatures.

"The Election Commission of India has recognised the existence of political parties since the First General Elections in India. Though, there was no provision either in the Act of 1951 or the Rules thereunder for recognition of political parties, the orders granting recognition to Political parties either as National or State Party were issued by the Election Commission in exercise of its powers under Article 324 of the Constitution", the court noted. 

In 1968, a provision for party recognition was integrated into the Elections Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order 1968. This order defined a political party in Para 2(1)(h) and laid out detailed procedures for party registration in Para 3. The Symbol Order 1968 governed party registration until 1989.

The constitutional validity of the Symbol Order 1968 faced legal scrutiny in the case of Kanhiya Lal Omar v. RK Trivedi & Ors [AIR 1986 SC 111], with a specific challenge directed towards the Election Commission's recognition and registration of political parties under Para 3 of the Symbol Order.

Recognizing the need to formalize the status of political parties within a legal framework, the court emphasized that the Parliament amended the Act of 1951, introducing a new Part-IVA which came into effect on June 15, 1989. This amendment included Section 29A, governing the registration of political parties. Consequently, political parties were registered by the Election Commission under this section from June 15, 1989 onwards, whereas registrations between August 31, 1968, and June 15, 1989, were conducted under the Symbol Order, 1968. “The aforenoted facts show that the right of the political parties to participate and contest the elections has been recognized by the Election Commission of India, independent of Section 29A of the Act of 1951 and even prior to its incorporation in the Act of 1951”, the court expounded. 

The bench opined that the power to oversee electoral processes for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) lies with the State Election Commission (SEC) under Article 243ZA of the Constitution, supported by Section 7 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation (DMC) Act. Rules of 2012, framed by the Lieutenant Governor, derive authority from Section 31 of the DMC Act. The SEC, in alignment with Rule 15 of the 2012 Rules, issued the Municipal Corporation of Delhi Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 2022, granting recognition to national and state parties recognized by the Election Commission for the 2022 elections.

Furthermore, the bench observed that the SEC's power to grant recognition is not contingent upon Rule 15 but stems from constitutional and statutory provisions. The court reiterated that the SEC's recognition of political parties for municipal elections falls within its jurisdiction and is not ultra vires, as there are no restrictions in Article 243ZA or 243R regarding political party participation in such elections.

The backbone of the Indian democracy is the people itself, who go on to choose their representative by way of direct election. At the time when first General Election of India was held, a vast majority of electors consisted of people who were illiterate and could not even read the name of the contesting candidates; therefore, after deliberations and after weighing different options, a system of use of ‘election symbols’ for the contesting candidates was put in place to help the electors to exercise their franchise in favour of the candidate of their choice”, the bench added. 

The court deemed the adoption of symbols by the State Election Commission (SEC) in the Municipal Elections as reasonable and non-arbitrary. The challenge in the writ petition pertained to the inclusion of reserved symbols of political parties on the list of contesting candidates in the MCD elections. National and State Parties, along with their reserved symbols, have been acknowledged under the contested Rules, court noted. 

Lokesh Kumar contested the validity of these Rules, arguing that the presence of reserved party symbols disrupted the level playing field for independent candidates. However, the court reiterated that the existing law and rules do not indicate any differential symbol allocation process, thus not violating Article 14 of the Constitution. 

Accordingly, the court held that the SEC's Symbol Order 2022, which grants recognition to National and State Parties already recognized by the Election Commission of India and allocates symbols to contesting candidates, is deemed within its legal purview under Article 243ZA of the Constitution, Section 7 of the DMC Act, and Rule 15 of the Rules of 2012.

Case Title: Lokesh Kumar v Govt Of Nct Of Delhi And Ors.