In a bid to preclude random search and seizure operations in poll-bound Gujarat, the Supreme Court on Friday empowered the Election Commission to seize cash found in a vehicle carrying a candidate, his agent, party worker posters, or election materials, ahead of the Gujarat elections if the amount was in excess of Rs.50,000 or contained gift items worth more than Rs. 10,000.

A Bench of Justices D.K. Jain and Madan B. Lokur passed this interim order while issuing notice returnable in four weeks on special leave petitions filed by the Election Commission against a judgment of the Gujarat High Court declaring as unconstitutional an EC guideline prohibiting vehicles from carrying cash above Rs. 2.5 lakh.

The Bench, in a brief order, said: “For the time being, the following may be substituted in place of the existing Para 4.7.1 of the guidelines, viz., ‘During such checking, if any cash exceeding Rs.50,000 is found in a vehicle carrying a candidate, or his agent or party worker or carrying posters or election materials or any drugs, liquor, arms or gift items [valued more than Rs.10,000] which are likely to be used for inducement of electors or any other illicit articles, are found in a vehicle, the same shall be subject to seizure’. The whole operation of checking and seizure is to be video-graphed by a team which [will] submit the copy of the video CD to the Returning Officer.”

Earlier, the Bench heard senior counsel Ashok Desai for the Commission and senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi and P.S. Narasimha for the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Bhagyoday Janparishad. The Bench agreed to examine whether the EC had the power to issue such instructions and whether it would stand up to legal scrutiny.

The High Court had quashed the Commission’s orders as ultra vires to the constitutional provisions, fundamental rights and privacy of citizens. As per the EC norms, people carrying more than Rs. 2.5 lakh in cash were required to produce proof of the money’s legitimate origin and purpose of its transport. For this purpose, the EC had set up special squads with powers to randomly and indiscriminately conduct a check on any person and seize cash if found to be above the limit prescribed under the norms. The Gujarat High Court had asked the EC to immediately stop its search-and-seizure operations, which were carried out randomly.

The High Court told the Commission that the instructions contained in Clause 4.7.1 (of its order) “shall not be implemented and there shall not be any indiscriminate or random search or seizure of any vehicle unless there is any reliable or credible information with the Election Commission, reduced into writing.” The EC had filed appeals against this judgment.