AAP Candidate Declared Chandigarh Mayor, Top Court Cancels Earlier Result

The AAP and the Congress - which contested the Chandigarh mayoral election in alliance with each other - have recorded the INDIA opposition bloc's first electoral win.

AAP candidate Kuldeep Kumar celebrates with his family members

New Delhi:

The Supreme Court made history Tuesday by declaring the Aam Aadmi Party's Kuldeep Kumar the winner of last month's Chandigarh mayoral election, ending weeks of controversy after Returning Officer Anil Masih was caught on camera invalidating and discarding eight votes in his favour.

The order - preceded by the counting of votes, including those erroneously rejected, in the courtroom rather than a counting centre - cancels the earlier result that saw the Bharatiya Janata Party's Manoj Sonkar elected Mayor. Delhi Chief Minister and AAP boss Arvind Kejriwal has hailed the verdict.

READ | "They Stole It, We Won It Back": Kejriwal On Big Chandigarh Win

Mr Masih also faces a contempt of court action initiated by the top court, which came down strongly on the former BJP Minority Cell member, who was warned of prosecution if it was found he lied to the court.

READ | Chandigarh Mayor Polls Officer Served Notice By Supreme Court

Should Mr Masih be prosecuted - in an earlier hearing the Supreme Court called his actions a "mockery of democracy" and indicated it would do just that - it will be a historic first in independent India, and a stern warning to potential hijacking of poll results weeks before the Lok Sabha election.

The judgement also means the AAP and the Congress - which contested as allies - have recorded the INDIA bloc's first win as it bids to defeat the BJP.

READ | BJP Wins Chandigarh Mayor Poll In First Battle Versus INDIA Bloc

As much as the court's order will be welcomed by the AAP and Kuldeep Kumar, it will also be a shot in the arm for the Congress and the INDIA bloc, which is on the verge of breaking up, less than a year after it was formed, amid disagreements between members on seat-sharing and poll prep details.

The bloc - which Janata Dal (United) boss Nitish Kumar helped found - has been snubbed by the Trinamool Congress in Bengal and is on thin ice with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

READ | INDIA Unity In Uttar Pradesh Hinges On Congress Reply

Nitish Kumar has walked and realigned with the BJP, dealing a massive blow.

AAP's position in INDIA has also been questioned with the Congress failing, so far, to agree seat-sharing in Punjab and Delhi, where the former is in power.

READ | Congress, AAP "Mutually Agreed" To Go Solo In Punjab: Kejriwal

The two parties' state units, particularly in Punjab, are vehemently opposed to any deal. Against that backdrop, the agreement to contest the mayoral election together was seen as a breakthrough.

The initial result - the 'defeat' - was seen as adding further strain on INDIA and the AAP-Congress ties, which will now likely be viewed in a more favourable light. But just how favourable is not yet clear, and will be revealed after the next round of seat-sharing talks between the two parties.

Earlier today the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, examined the eight discarded ballots. Mr Masih had on Monday told the court he marked those eight because they had been "defaced" by the councillors themselves, and he wanted to ensure the votes were not counted.

READ | Chandigarh Poll Recount, 8 Invalidated Votes To Be Counted: Court

Under the law, double-marked ballot papers, or those with marks that identify the lawmaker, or are marked in any other way, are considered "invalid" and cannot be included in the counting process.

The court began today's hearing by asking Mr Masih to point out how the ballots were "defaced". Appearing for the Returning Officer, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, pointed to small dots and replied, "... (so) he assessed certain ballots were invalid. He is not a thief... it was his assessment."

The court was distinctly unconvinced, and noted "All eight have received the stamp for Kuldeep Kumar... the votes are cast for Mr Kumar. What he (Mr Masih) does is... he puts a single line..."

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Returning Officer Anil Masih told the Supreme Court he put an 'X' on eight ballot papers.

This was not the first time Mr Masih has been grilled by the Supreme Court.

On Monday he was told, "If you are not giving a truthful answer, you will be prosecuted" and asked, "What were you doing, looking at the camera putting crosses on ballots. Why were you putting marks?"

READ | Chief Justice Grilling Chandigarh Officer Is A First In Independent India

"After voting I had to put signs on (some) papers. Defaced ones had to be segregated," he said.

Controversy over the results of the Chandigarh mayoral race broke after a video of the counting process was widely shared online. The video showed Mr Masih surreptitiously marking some ballot papers. Halfway through his act he glances up and realises his actions are being recorded by CCTVs.

READ | On Camera, AAP's Mayoral Candidate Breaks Down After Defeat

The video triggered furious protests by the AAP and the Congress, which accused the BJP of orchestrating the incident. The BJP firmly denied these allegations.

Chandigarh Mayoral Election

The BJP's Manoj Sonkar had earlier been declared the winner.

Polling officials gave Mr Sonkar 16 votes to Mr Kumar's 12; had the eight votes been counted, as the Supreme Court has directed, the AAP candidate would have recorded a comfortable win.

Since then three AAP councillors have sided with the BJP, significantly changing the equation in this election. The BJP now has 19 votes in the 35-member house, including that of the Chandigarh Lok Sabha MP, who has voting rights as an ex-officio member. The AAP-Congress have only 17.

If a re-election - as was sought by Mr Sonkar - had been ordered the BJP would have won the poll.

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