Herculean task

Herculean task

Herculean task

For an election of such a gargantuan scale, the challenges faced by the EC cannot have any match anywhere in the world.

As the nine-phase mammoth Lok Sabha elections is drawing to an end, with 9,30,000 polling stations in the country, a total of 11 million poll personnel to cater to some 814.5 million voters in 543 constituencies recorded in some 1.8 million electronic voting machines, the Election Commission can rest on its laurels. For an election of such a gargantuan scale, the logistical challenges faced by the EC cannot have any match anywhere in the world.

The 1999 election was the last LS election to have used paper ballots supervised by Manohar Singh Gill, then India’s former chief election commissioner. “The introduction of electronic voting machine was India’s biggest electoral reform,” he said pointing out what a great technological leap it was to the end of ensuring free and fair polls.

With the electronic vote count, ballot-box stuffing has been a thing of the past. But voting fraud still occurs in other ways, with party workers either surrounding a polling booth to intimidate voters or the party workers themselves taking control of a booth and repeatedly pressing the button for a candidate. If EVM was a giant leap in making elections free and fair in India, mandatory deployment of central forces can ensure that a rightful voter can press its button without fear and favour while comprehensive and universal video recording can detect a malpractice. 

In this election as well, allegations of rigging flew high. Trinamool Congress (TMC), BJP and Tripura Pragatishil Gramin Congress (TPGC), a breakaway faction of Congress, demanded removal of chief electoral officer Ashutosh Jindal of Tripura for his alleged ‘partisan’ role in the elections and demanded repolling due to large-scale ‘rigging’ allegedly by CPM in west and tribal-reserved east Tripura constituencies that went to poll on April 7 and April 12 respectively. While the CPM as the ruling party of Tripura came to be riled by parties in opposition, contrast that with the third phase of Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal that was marked by wild allegations of rigging against the ruling TMC by the Congress, BJP and Left parties. The Congress and Left parties had demanded removal of chief electoral officer Sunil Gupta and the state’s special observer Sudhir Kumar Rakesh for their ‘failure’ to ensure a free and fair election.

And the complainants are not always ordinary party apparatchiks to be brushed aside. BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi recently alleged that polling in three phases of LS elections in UP, Bihar and West Bengal had not been fair and accused the EC of partisanship. There have been allegations of rigging against the Congress by the BJP and AGP in places at Assam, like in Jalukbari, Hailakandi and Karimganj. A television channel has captured how on April 17, a group of men entered a polling booth in Aul Assembly Constituency of Kendrapara district of Odisha and forced people to cast the vote as per their order or simply they took over voting. Such incidents, however, sporadic, have been reported to have taken place in this election as well.

Rigging the polls

West Bengal is a case in point. It was the CPM which not only pioneered the first foolproof, elaborate, systematic, and foundational machinery of rigging the polls by the witchcraft of making an administration subservient to their scheme of things but also established an entrenched culture of rigging in the state. Earlier, that the Left Front rigged polls were just unsubstantiated allegations till Afzal Amanullah, a Bihar cadre IAS officer, who, incidentally, was Election Commission’s special observer for West Bengal in 2004, prepared a detailed report.

Amanullah called this ‘silent rigging’ perfected to the realm of an art which was, in effect, no short of a cottage industry in West Bengal when the Left was in power. He found out that riggers worked hard on electoral rolls to pinpoint voters who had left the area and those who were likely to be absent on the day of poll, to identify putative polling agents of rival parties to bribe and intimidate them so that they do not show up in a poll day, or even if they do, they just gloss over a false vote. 

They also had the administrative backing to pick up rival ‘trouble-makers’ before the poll day. On the poll day cadres had to resort to booth jamming just to tire out genuine voters. Booth managers, at the dying hours of the poll, were seen to facilitate the respective booth agents to fill the unpolled votes to their party. The entire exercise was a remarkable feat of social engineering.

Quraishi once noted that since every ruling party has power and the entire government machinery at its disposal, there is a general tendency to misuse it: “So normally the ruling party is always unhappy with us and the opposition parties have expectations from us. However, when the roles get reversed the same parties criticise us”. That might explain why the CPM as the opposition in West Bengal is the aggrieved party and why it is viewed as a rigger in Tripura, where it is a ruling party. 

Electoral malpractices are not peculiar to India as worldwide, in 2014 alone, the general election in Bangladesh and Thailand and the presidential election in Hungary and Algeria have been tarred with charges of fraud. But large-scale rigging creates social disenchantment as the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir has been linked to the allegations that the assembly election was rigged in favour of the National Conference Party of Farooq Abdullah in 1987. 

It is possible to argue in view of the enormity of the magnitude of the national election in India, aberrant incidents are minor and the elections were free and fair relatively. The trouble is, in a narrow election a small amount of fraud may be enough to change the outcome. Even for a small percentage of forcibly disenfranchised voters, electoral fraud can seriously impair voters’ confidence in democracy.

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