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Supreme Court refuses to direct Election Commission to upload voter turnout numbers amid LS polls

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NEW DELHI, May 24: The Supreme Court on Friday refused to issue directions to the Election Commission on an NGO’s plea for uploading polling booth-wise voter turnout data on its website during the Lok Sabha elections and favoured a “hands-off attitude” amidst an ongoing electoral process.

A vacation bench of Justices Dipankar Datta and Satish Chandra Sharma adjourned the hearing on the application filed by ‘Association for Democratic Reforms’ and said it will be heard with the NGO’s writ petition filed in 2019 after the Lok Sabha elections are over.

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It said everyone wants free and fair elections but “we are also concerned that there could be mischievous people looking to take advantage”.

“The arguments on the interim application were heard. Prima facie we are not inclined to grant any relief on the interim application at this stage in view of the similarities of prayer ‘A’ of interim application with prayer ‘B’ of writ petition out of which the interim application arises. Grant of such interim relief would amount to granting the final relief in the writ petition,” the court said.

It said the 2024 elections are spread over seven phases out of which five are already over and the sixth is on May 25.

“This particular compliance which you (NGO) are insisting upon would require not only manpower but also require mandamus (a judicial writ). It is not possible during this period. We have to be conscious of the ground reality and cannot change the process mid-way,” the top court said.

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“Let us tell you, we keep it pending and (will) hear along with Article 32 writ petition after elections are over. In between the elections, hands-off attitude has to be there,” the bench told senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for the NGO.

Senior advocate Maninder Singh, appearing for the Election Commission, questioned the maintainability of the interim application and claimed it has been filed on the basis of mere suspicion and apprehension coupled with false allegations.

The bench, which posed to Dave several questions about the maintainability of the plea, asked why the interim application filed by the NGO contained an identical prayer made in the writ petition of 2019.

“Prayer ‘A’ in your (interim) application is Prayer ‘B’ in your writ petition. That’s the final relief you have prayed for in the writ petition. Now, how can you claim it as an interim relief?” the bench told Dave.

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The prayer ‘A’ in the interim application says “Direct the Election Commission of India to immediately upload on its website scanned legible copies of Form 17C Part-I (Account of Votes Recorded) of all polling stations after close of polling of each phase in the on-going 2024 Lok Sabha elections.”

The top court said the NGO’s interim application is based on various press notes issued by the ECI pertaining to the 2024 polls and asked can a court, by an interim order, grant a relief which is in the nature of a final relief while keeping the writ petition pending.

Dave submitted it is not an adversarial litigation and the NGO has approached the court for a genuine public cause as the EC, after the first two phases of polling, came out with a voter turnout figure which was substantially higher than what it had initially given.

Dave said these are public interest litigation proceedings where strict rules of procedure, pleadings etc do not apply.

“We are not so strict on PILs if they involve a public cause,” the bench said but added that the apex court has often come across PILs which have “private interest”.

“We find many PILs have private interest, publicity interest and paisa interest. So therefore it is for us to put a check on frivolous writ petitions,” the top court said.

When Dave told the bench that he understands its anguish and contended that the EC cannot shut the petitioner out by raising objections to the interim application, the judges said it is the court which is raising questions on procedural grounds and not the poll panel.

“It is not a question of anguish. Everyone is for free and fair election. We have said in the April 26 judgement that whatever improvement (electoral reform) is needed has to be done,” Justice Datta told Dave and added, “You are also a responsible citizen. Let us trust some authority (EC).”

Senior advocate Abhishek Singhvi, appearing for Trinamool Congress leader Mahua Moitra, said the returning officers of all 543 Lok Sabha constituencies can easily manage to upload the voter turnout data.

On May 17, the top court had sought within a week a response from the Election Commission on the NGO’s plea seeking a direction to upload polling station-wise voter turnout data on its website within 48 hours of the conclusion of polling for each phase of the Lok Sabha elections.

In its affidavit, the poll panel has opposed the NGO’s demand contending it will “vitiate” the electoral space and cause “chaos” in the poll machinery in the midst of the general elections. (PTI)

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