Coronavirus: Andhra local bodies polls put off, triggers political war

The SEC had on Sunday (March 15) issued a notification postponing the elections scheduled to be held between March 21 and March 29

In an unprecedented attack, the Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy accused the state election commissioner of “showing caste loyalty” towards former Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu. Photo: PTI

A full-blown political war has broken out in Andhra Pradesh over the State Election Commission’s decision to postpone elections to local bodies by six weeks in view of the coronavirus threat.

In an unprecedented attack, the Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy accused the state election commissioner N Ramesh Kumar of “showing caste loyalty” towards former Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and overstepping his brief by unilaterally putting off the polls.

“Am I the chief minister or is he (SEC) the chief minister?” fumed Jagan as he launched a sharp attack on senior official for his “brazen act” of deferring the elections without even bothering to consult the chief secretary or the health secretary.

The slugfest has acquired a caste dimension with the ruling YSR Congress and the opposition Telugu Desam Party accusing each other of politicising the administration and vitiating the atmosphere in the state.

The SEC had on Sunday (March 15) issued a notification postponing the elections scheduled to be held between March 21 and March 29.

“The election process for both rural and urban local bodies would be continued after six weeks from now, or after the threat of COVID-19 recedes, whichever is earlier,” the notification said.

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The polls were scheduled to be held for municipalities, municipal corporations, nagar panchayats, mandal parishad (block parishad) territorial constituencies (MPTCs) and zilla parishad territorial constituencies (ZPTCs) and gram panchayats spread over 13 districts.

Collision course

The sudden announcement by the SEC, appointed during the previous TDP regime, has set off political furore in the state. The YSRCP went all guns blazing, attacking the election official and attributing motives to him.

“It seems he (Ramesh Kumar) is working at the behest of Chandrababu Naidu. He was appointed by Naidu and now he is showing his loyalty as they both belong to the same caste,” Jagan said in what is seen an unusual response from a chief minister.

What added insult to the injury was the SEC’s decision to transfer the collectors and superintendents of police of Guntur and Chittoor districts.

“Though he has some constitutional powers, how can he so blatantly misuse them? I am not going to keep quiet,” the chief minister said.

Complaint to the Governor

The chief minister lost no time in taking up the matter with the Governor Biswabhusan Harichandan and seeking his intervention in the matter.

“Ever since we won a considerable number of seats in local bodies unanimously, the TDP has been conspiring to stall polls to save its face and also to deprive the state of the Central funds to the tune of Rs 5, 000 crore which we have to forfeit if polls are not held before March 31,” he said in a representation to the Governor.

Disagreeing with the reason cited by the state election commission to put off the polls, he said ““More than 80% of the coronavirus cases across the world were cured by house isolation and in Andhra Pradesh, out of 70 samples taken, only one case was tested positive. The state has taken effective steps and screened people with care and there is absolutely no need to postpone elections.”

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“Ours is a popularly elected government with 151 MLAs. Who is more powerful? A chief minister of the state or the state election commissioner? If Ramesh Kumar can transfer officials unilaterally, why can’t he sit in the chief minister’s chair?” Jagan said.

Naidu’s response

The TDP chief dismissed the allegations and said it was unbecoming of a chief minister to make references to the caste and hurl charges against a senior bureaucrat.

“The then Governor ESL Narasimhan had recommended Ramesh Kumar’s name for the post and I merely went by the recommendation. It is highly unbecoming of chief minister to attribute caste motives,” Naidu clarified.

Meanwhile, the YSRCP general secretary V Vijay Sai Reddy described Ramesh Kumar as “more dangerous than coronavirus” and demanded action against the official.

Dubbing the SEC as the “suicide squad member of TDP”, the YSRCP parliamentary party leader accused the official of being casteist and demanded his resignation, if he had any “shame and moral values.”

Health protocol

Meanwhile, the SEC clarified that he was only following the health protocol of the central government on coronavirus and had consulted national level functionaries before deciding to defer the elections.

“A large number of voters are expected to come from Hyderabad and other places in Telangana to Andhra to cast their votes in the local body elections. So, there is a possibility of spread of the virus during such mass congregations. Hence, we have decided to postpone the local body polls for six weeks. New dates will be announced once the spread of the virus is contained,” the SEC said.

He said since the ballot paper would be used for voting and considering the long queues where large number of people would gather at one place, the contamination of the ballot boxes might pose a threat to public health.

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“The state election commission is a constitutional body and the commissioner is at par with a high court judge with equal safeguards. Attributing motives to a constitutional functionary is highly regretted and it would only weaken the institution,” he said.

“We have not cancelled the elections but only postponed and whenever the warning is de-escalated, the election process will start, without losing a single day,” the official said.

He also defended postponement of house sites distribution programme, saying it could not be allowed due to model code of conduct, as per the high court directions to the SEC.

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