Thursday, May 26, 2022

Fixing The Poll Process

Charges of "scientific rigging" are not new in West Bengal, the only state where the ruling alliance has been winning elections for over 25 years, but reports about a recent EC report underline the crying need for prompt action.

Fixing The Poll Process

Afzal Amanullah, a senior Bihar cadre IAS officer, was appointed the Election Commission's Special Observer in the widely applauded October 2003 J&K Assembly elections by the then CEC Lyngdoh. He was also sent to West Bengal as Special Observer in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. 

But he is currently in the news not for his high-profile current assignment as the director of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) but for a 10-page report submitted by him, which is now suddenly in the eye of a storm. His report, based on various press reports so far, allegedly talks about  "organised rigging" by "a particular political party" during the 2004 Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal. And it has predictably led to demands by the opposition that it be made public.

Now, it doesn't really require one to be a Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the alleged reference clearly is to the CPM-led Left Front. But so far, despite all the opposition demands, including a PIL, the report has not been made public. And the reasons are not too difficult to fathom. As the report makes serious charges on free and fair elections in West Bengal, the only state in the country where the ruling alliance, the Left Front, has been winning elections for over 25 years.

Among the charges of organised rigging, the following are prominent, though they would not be new to anyone who has closely followed the elections in West Bengal:

Big Stink: A "strong scent" is put by a loyal voter on the party’s key in the electronic voting machine when he goes to cast his vote. Everyone who votes thereafter and chooses the same key has the "scent" transferred to their figure in addition to the indelible ink thereby enabling it to be tracked as to who voted for whom.

Slow Down Voting:  A particular political party "traditionally jams the booths" to "discourage" genuine unattached voters from voting. In opposition strongholds, the voting process is "slowed down" by deliberately planting voters in the line whose records are suspect. This is done to hold up the queue and bring down the voting percentage. Another disruptive method is to strategically place those persons in the queue who are "challenged voters" (that is those who either don’t have their names on the electoral list or the correct identity proof) at regular intervals. 

Fudging of Electoral Rolls: According to Ammanulah's findings, a pre-determined number of genuine voters are assigned to be deleted to local party workers. In case of these being challenged, some of the names are allowed to be restored, but since not everyone bothers, a whole lot are prevented from casting their votes. Since the state’s electoral rolls are not accessible to public and suffer from  "padding and manipulation" - and in the absence of access, "deletions" and "revisions" cannot be checked. 

Partymen on polling duty: The report talks about unionisation of the non-IPS police force, and goes on to say that at a rough estimate, upto 90% of the unions in West Bengal are affiliated, once again, to "a particular political party" and cautions against using them or primary and secondary school teachers from West Bengal for electoral duty. The system of patronage perfected by the Left Front has been such that only party workers are allowed state government jobs and the very system of fairness demands that such people should not be on election duty. The report also cautions that Home Guards not in "active service for five years, should not be called for election duty" as they too are involved with party work. 

Unsecret Ballots: The report categorically states that the EC should "look at all the booths in the whole of the state" and ensure that "polling compartments" are put "away from windows" so as to ensure that a voter's choice is not visible from outside. 

It would seem that the Election Commission's Special Observer came back with a grim picture of the extent and pervasiveness of what has always been murmured as "scientific rigging" by the Left Front and his recommendations are therefore all the more noteworthy, most of which were also in evidence in Bihar elections. His report is clear that instead of local and state law enforcement agencies, central paramilitary forces should be posted in every polling booth and 
intimidation of the polling agents of all major political parties should be prevented by ensuring that all of them are present inside the booth which should be monitored by superior offices. The report also suggests that the posted EC officials should have mobile phones, the numbers of which should be made public so that they can be contacted by those with complaints.

Predictably, the Left Front has attempted to shrug off the charges and allegations while the opposition, and most notably, Mamta Bannerjee, has arguesd convincingly, " When the Right to Information Act came into force, the people have the right to know what was there in Amanullah's report, excerpts of which were published in a few newspapers. But we would like have the full report published by the EC'' 

Clearly, publishing of the report should be a first step but what is even more important is to ensure that the recommendations are implemented. Frankly, there is no reason for the Left Front to feel upset by these demands, for it would be in their own interest if these steps are taken and the elections are not only fair but are also perceived to be so. 

The EC therefore has its job cut out. Its recent direction to the WB government to transfer administrative and police officers serving for three years or more in the same district, as against four years or more earlier, has been seen as too little and too ineffective. Saugata Roy, also a Trinamul MLA argues that any government officer who has served in a district during 2004 Lok Sabha elections should not be allowed to handle the coming assembly poll. But how would it help if the party faithful are moved from one place to another? There are logistical and administrative issues involved for sure, but surely with the experiences of the J&K and Bihar elections, much is expected of the EC. If nothing else, for its own credibility, the Left Front itself should not only push for the release of the so-called Amanullah report but also welcome the suggestions therein.