Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram may have failed in his bid to avert a trial in a case challenging the validity of his election in 2009 from the Sivaganga parliamentary constituency. But does the Madras High Court's decision dismissing his plea to strike off the election petition filed by his opponent, the AIADMK's Raja Kannappan, signify anything more than a small embarrassment? While the allegations made by Mr. Kannappan are of a serious nature, the germane issue is whether this case against Mr. Chidambaram will be decided before he completes his five-year term as a Lok Sabha MP. The answer: probably not. The delay in disposing of election petitions, which are rarely settled before the term of the elected candidate runs out, is a major flaw of our electoral system. This is not the way things were supposed to be. Section 86 (6) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 enjoins High Courts to hold trials “from day to day” until their conclusion. And subsection 86 (7) declares that “every election petition shall be tried as expeditiously as possible and endeavour shall be made to conclude the trial within six months from the date on which the election petition is presented to the High Court on trial.” Unfortunately, the speed of the judicial system has failed to keep up with the demands of the law.
Faced with the phenomenon of election petitions becoming infructuous, as they remained pending after the term of the House expired, the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission recommended the setting up of special tribunals to expedite their disposal. The enormous irony of delay was brought home in the case of Congress MLA P. Veldurai, whose election to Cheranmahadevi in 2006 was set aside by the Supreme Court at a time when he was busy campaigning to be elected to another Tamil Nadu constituency in 2011! That the court ordered to him to repay the salary he earned as a legislator was hardly recompense to his opponent, who was unjustly denied Assembly membership. The High Court's decision allowing the trial against Mr. Chidambaram to take place should not be interpreted — as some of his political opponents have chosen to — as evidence of his guilt. No conclusion should be drawn about the merits of the petition and the calls for his resignation over this are unreasonable. The Court's decision only means that the charges, with the exception of two that have been struck off, will now be examined in detail during the trial. However, in the interest of justice and in recognition of the centrality of elections to our constitutional framework, this should take place as expeditiously as possible.