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Karnataka High Court to decide whether Congress’s ‘guarantee gifts’ in poll amounted to bribing voters

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah

Bengaluru: The shadow of disqualification looms over Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah for “bribing the voters” in the recent Assembly elections, if the former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde’s “interpretation” of the offer of guarantees to voters by Siddaramaiah and other Congress candidates is upheld by the Karnataka High Court.

Even as a petition has been filed in the high court appealing to declare Siddaramaiah’s election as “void” and debar him from contesting elections for six years, justice (retired) Santosh Hegde, who was also a distinguished Karnataka Lokayukta, has opined that the guarantees announced by the Congress party was “clearly a bribe” and they had helped the party to come to power. He said the implementation of these guarantees would have a “deleterious effect” on the development of the State.

Admitting the petition filed by senior advocate Pramila Nesargi, the single judge High Court bench of justice Sunil Dutt Yadav has posted the case for further hearing on July 28.

Signed guarantee cardsi

Ms Pramila Nesargi, appearing for the petitioner, KM Shankara, a citizen of Varuna constituency which elected Siddaramaiah, told India Narrative that she had made out “a strong case” for Siddaramaiah’s disqualification as MLA. She said she had produced to the court “documentary evidence” of respondent Siddaramaiah presenting “signed guarantee cards” to the voters and obtaining their “consent” to vote for him.

The petition has attached a video aired by the India Today TV on March 10, 2023 where in Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar (who has subsequently become deputy chief minister of Karnataka), in their “joint video address” make an announcement regarding the distribution of guarantee cards “signed” by them to every household either by themselves or by the Congress party workers. Shivakumar is also heard saying, “We will be giving cheque signatures” regarding the guarantees.

Nesargi said since the Congress party workers had distributed lakhs of such guarantee cards among the voters and the party’s manifesto had also promised “five guarantees” to the people, it was “a corrupt practice amounting to bribery, and also undue influence under Section 123 (2) of the Representation of the People Act.”

Inducing the electorate

“The guarantees are in the form of gratification to the electorate of Varuna constituency and with the objective of directly inducing the electorate to vote for the Congress party candidate. The consideration was the vote in favour of the respondent as a gratification with the motive and reward,” the petition said.

The petitioner also contended that, “The said guarantees are in the nature of offer and promises made by the candidates and the Indian National Congress and they are “in breach of the provisions of the Constitution and the rules and guidelines under the Representation of the People Act.”

Making an example

Nesargi said all the persons whose names find a place in the manifesto “are jointly and severally responsible for corrupt practices under Article 123 (1) and 123 (2)” but she was seeking the disqualification of the chief minister from MLA seat “in order to make an example.”

Under the title “Corrupt practices and electoral offences” in the Article 123 of the Constitution, a clear definition is offered. Article 123 (1) defines “bribery” thus: “Any gift, offer or promise by a candidate or his agent of any gratification to any person whomsoever with the objectives of directly or indirectly inducing that person.” Section 123 (2) says, “Under the influence, that is to say, any direct or indirect interference or attempt to interfere on the part of the candidate or his agent or any person with the free exercise of any electoral right.”

The petitioner also contended that some of the guarantees like free bus ride across the state and Rs 2,000 per month allowance were being offered exclusively to women, which was an “infringement on Article 14 of the Constitution” as it discriminates against men and therefore, liable to be to be struck down.

If Siddaramaiah is indeed disqualified by the High Court and barred from contesting any election for the next six years, he would be joining his leader Rahul Gandhi who has been similarly punished in a contempt case. Rahul Gandhi’s petition seeking a stay on his disqualification is currently being heard by the Supreme Court.