Violence broke out in Karimganj district of Assam on Thursday night after a mob spotted a BJP candidate's vehicle being used to transport a polled EVM to the strong room, forcing the police to fire in the air to bring the situation under control.
The incident snowballed into a huge controversy on Friday morning with the opposition Congress and AIUDF alleging that the EVM was being "stolen", while the Election Commission suspended four poll officials and ordered a repoll at the booth as a video of the fiasco went viral on social media.
The vehicle of the polling party of the 149-Indira MV School in the Ratabari constituency broke down on their way to the strong room in Karimganj town, officials said.
"They took a lift on a private vehicle. Incidentally, the vehicle was registered under the name of the wife of the sitting BJP MLA from Patharkandi Krishnendu Paul. When it reached the Nimal Bazaar area, some public spotted it," an official of the district administration said.
Paul is also the BJP candidate from the Patharkandi seat this time, while Ratabari is currently represented by BJP MLA Bijoy Malakar, who is contesting the election as well.
The mob, mostly consisting of AIUDF and Congress supporters, claimed the EVM units were being transported in a BJP candidate's vehicle with intention of tampering.
The assembled crowd, which swelled to over 100 people within minutes, vandalised the vehicle and tried to manhandle the officials, upon which the polling party ran away, leaving behind the EVMs, eyewitnesses said.
"The Deputy Commissioner and Superintendent of Police reached the spot immediately and they tried to pacify the mob. But the crowd did not listen, forcing the police to fire in the air to disperse them," police sources said.
The DC and the SP then brought the EVMs to Patharkandi police station, from where it was taken to the strong room in Karimganj town, they added.
Ratabari and Patharkandi constituencies went to the polls in the second phase on Thursday.
BJP candidate Paul rubbished the allegations of EVM tampering and said that his brother, who was in the vehicle when the incident happened, just gave a lift to the poll officials as their vehicle broke down.
"My brother was returning from Patharkandi when some people waved at the vehicle for a lift around 9 pm. He gave them a lift as their vehicle broke down," he told PTI.
"There was a huge traffic snarl on the highway as hundreds of poll vehicles were returning to Karimganj following the elections. Our vehicle, a Bolero, was stuck in the snarl near Karimganj town, and suddenly a politically- motivated mob arrived at the spot and created a ruckus. They thrashed my driver and vandalised the car," he added.
Paul said that the party's Ratabari candidate is winning the election by a huge margin and there was no question of tampering.
"I am from Patharkandi, and the EVM was of Ratabari. What reason would I have to tamper with them? Bijoy Malakar is anyway winning the Ratabari seat by at least 40,000 votes, why will the BJP attempt tampering?" he claimed.
The EC said the presiding officer and three other officials have been placed under suspension for violation of the transport protocol.
"Although the seals of the EVM were found intact, it has nevertheless been decided to do a re-poll at No 149-Indira MV School of LAC Ratabari (SC) as an added precaution. A report has also been sought from the special observer," it said.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi attacked the BJP over the incident.
"EC's car breaks down, BJP's intentions are bad, the condition of democracy worsens," he said in a tweet in Hindi.
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said the EC needs to start acting decisively on reports of private vehicles transporting electronic voting machines, and a serious re-evaluation of the use of EVMs needs to be carried out by all national parties.
In a series of tweets, she claimed that every time there is an election, videos of private vehicles, usually belonging to BJP, caught transporting EVMs show up.
Congress ally Badruddin Ajmal said the incident shows an attempt to "steal" EVMs as the BJP is losing the elections.
"Polarisation? Failed. Buying votes? Failed. Buying candidates? Failed. Jumle-baazi? Failed. Double CMs? Failed. Doublespeak on CAA? Failed. Loser BJPs last resort: steal the EVMs. Murder of democracy," he tweeted.
Demanding an explanation and immediate action, Assam Congress chief Ripun Bora said the party will consider boycotting the election if "this open loot and rigging of EVMs" does not stop immediately.
Lok Sabha MP and Assam Congress Campaign Committee chairman Pradyut Bordoloi said: "Why can't the BJP gracefully accept they are losing #AssamAssemblyElections2021? Stealing EVMs and rigging the result won't do you any good. Assam will never forgive you even if @ECISVEEP does."
Congress Manifesto Committee chairman Gaurav Gogoi said the EC needs to save itself before public trust is eroded completely as it is the "same script" in every election.
Holding a press conference in Guwahati, the newly- floated Raijor Dal also criticised transporting the EVM in a BJP candidate's vehicle and said it is the signal of the party's defeat.
"Not only in Karimganj, but we heard many such incidents from other constituencies as well. Reports came from even Sibsagar seat, where Akhil Gogoi contested, that there were some irregularities related to the EVM," Raijor Dal adviser Sitanath Lahkar said.