Time limit to fill casual vacancies: Supreme Court considers forming guidelines for Election Commission

The Court set aside a Bombay High Court direction to hold the election to replace Late Member of Parliament Girish Bapat immediately.

On 8 January 2024, a bench led by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud considered laying down guidelines for holding elections when there is a prolonged vacancy in the Lok Sabha, to ensure that the Election Commission of India (ECI) conducts by-polls quickly.

The Bench, which also comprised Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, set aside a Bombay High Court Order from 13 December 2023. In that Order, the Bombay High Court directed the ECI to hold immediate elections for the Pune Lok Sabha seat that had remained vacant since 29 March 2023, following the death of Member of Parliament Girish Bapat.

Casual vacancies and High Court’s direction

Section 151A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RPA) stipulates that a bye-election for filling a vacancy must be held within six months from the date of occurrence of the vacancy. The provision lists two exceptions: if the remainder of the term is less than one year or if the ECI, in consultation with the Union Government, certifies that it is difficult to hold elections within the six months.

In the present case, the ECI notified the vacancy of the Pune Lok Sabha seat on 3 April. However,  nearly five months later on 23 August, the ECI issued a certificate claiming that they could not hold bye-elections on account of being preoccupied with preparations for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. It added that if elections were to be held, the elected candidate would serve a short tenure.

On 13 December 2023, the Bombay High Court rejected the ECI’s arguments. “An indefinite period of an entire constituency remaining unrepresented is wholly unconstitutional and is fundamentally anathema to our constitutional structure,” the Court stated.

Earlier this month, the ECI approached the Supreme Court against the High Court’s Order through a Special Leave Petition.

CJI: Election Commission should act with alacrity

Though the Supreme Court set aside the High Court’s Order, the Bench made their dissatisfaction clearly known to the ECI. The CJI noted that when the said seat fell vacant in March, over a year remained till the next Lok Sabha Elections, on 16 June 2024. “There must be some duty cast on the Election Commission to proceed with alacrity the moment a vacancy occurs,” the Court said.

In a short Order, the Bench stated that it plans to interpret Section 151A of the RPA in the present case. The Bench is expected to hear the matter further in March or April 2024.