Election Process Captive By Docile Administration
The debate on electoral reforms has been going on for last four decades. The Janata Party government, which came to power in the aftermath of JP movement with electoral reforms and corruption as the main plank, did little to achieve the objective and rightly god punished the party for its deceit. The Goswami committee’s report, which carried near consensus of various political entities on the subject, is in a cold storage. So also is the fate of many other similar reports/ recommendations. Many of the political parties of the present India are private limited companies in which a son or a daughter is the heir-apparent and because of this reason, some of them are not interested in reforms. The present position perhaps suits them well. In this background, the former Governor of Maharashtra Mr C Subramaniam in June1995 had urged for a legislation to regulate the functioning of political parties to strike at the very root in order to reform the democratic system.
The EC over the years has taken many steps to reform the election process. Some of these steps are effective while some other steps are purely ornamental. Over all, steps are found inadequate to arrest booth capturing and rigging. Every election to Loka Sabha and different state assemblies is marred by violence, rigging and excess voting as usual. The defective voter list also deprives at least 5 per cent voters in every booth, although persons responsible usually pretend ignorance or downplay the events. The reason of ever-rising instance of booth-level malpractices is because officers adopt tactics of avoidance. Some of the officers in charge try to pass time as they know that after election is over the EC would become irrelevant. Howsoever noble and capable the observers may be, it is humanly impossible for them to oversee election in a vast country like India due to lack of independent and impartial infrastructure at ground level. Thus the election process is virtually captive in the hands of the district administration. Some officials give more attention to regulate speeches of leaders, which attract media highlight, than that to booth management though the latter is key for reflection of the true and real choice of the public. Unless Election Commission gets a permanent and independent infrastructure, at least one in each district as election officer with full power to regulate and decide election-related matters and deal cases of electoral malpractices, such incidents will continue to occur with temporary noises here and there against them. As per the reports published in the largest Oriya daily The Samaj on 23.04.2009, in one of the booths of Jajpur assembly segment, the total polling was 484 against 428 registered voters. Even after seven days of polling no reaction was available from the administration on such excess voting.
After 2000 Odisha Assembly Election, I had personally written to the Election Commissioner (at least two times) as well as to Human Rights Commission that in 72 (new 127) assembly segments in 2000 Assembly Election to Odisha Vidhan Sabha excess votes were cast. I had cited examples that in booths namely No. 38 (old 45), Booth No. 60 (old 69) and Booth No. 75 (old 88), 854, 1110, 892 votes were cast against total registered votes 839, 1030, 782 voters respectively. No inquiry was conducted. The Election Commission, which is a public institinstitution and advocates
political parties on discipline, fair play, level play, itself has not acknowledged to my letters on the subject, leave aside any action. I had provided copies of result sheet publisehd by EC itself to establish the occurrence. This shows the opaque part of the Commission’s transparency and accountability. In any other democracy the incident would have sent all concerned to jail. The Election Commission is a great institution vested with powers to protect democracy and any complaint of fraud, impersonation, rigging in voting process should be investigated thoroughly to reach to a logical conclusion. Any act of retreat from such responsibility would be contrary to the objective assigned to it. The NHRC, however, did not inquire into the complaint as its rules do not permit inquiry on such issues. If stealing right of the voters to choose a person of their choice or intimidating citizens in use of their franchise may not be a human right violation in India, then God save us! In many cases the district election officers and their sub-ordinates adopt a common tactics of avoidance and make superfluous assurances of taking strong measures merely to pass the time somehow. Experience shows that the polling and presiding officers who are mostly employees under district administration out of fear for their authorities do not report in booth diaries about cases of rigging, intimidation to avoid complicacies, eventually making democracy the real looser.
Insensitive administration and sensitive booth
The identification of sensitive booths is left on the mercy of local police. The police posted in trouble-prone areas remain confined to outside the booth while manipulation in voting takes place as usual. This is happening in every election particularly in regimental areas where majority or most of the voters support a particular party or leader, booth capturing normally takes place. The mobile police put in charge of such ‘sensitive’ booths normally patrols/monitors 10 to 15 booths thus hardly has any time to enforce discipline concentrating on any single booth. The miscreants and mobile party are engaged in hide and seek game. The miscreants keep quite on police arrival and restore to the dirty game of booth capturing after the disappearance of mobile parties. The Election Commission after sixty years of experience should understand the ground realities and could use army and ex-army personnel for protecting booths from criminals, as defending democracy from hooligans is as important as defending the country’s border from enemies. The introduction of EVMs has made booth capturing easier in connivance with certain booth officials who out of fear and to avoid anger of seniors keep quiet to such heinous crimes. Added to this, in regimental/single party-dominated area, rival candidates do not get their agents to monitor their side or if someone is lucky to get an agent from the localities such agent is forced to keep mum in fear of life to protect his future. In such booths on prior information of any candidate, the EC should nominate an independent person to report on booth capturing without which things will continue as usual and all those in charge will continue to pretend their innocense while democracy would be the real casualty.
Defective voter list & booth security
In every election the defective voter lists are the subject of hard talk, which deprive voters to cast their votes. Defective voter lists prevent many from exercising their franchise. In accurate entries, double entries, erroneous booth divisions are rampant in voter lists. To correct the situation, block-level election officers should be empowered on permanent basis to remain accountable for correcting voter lists, and private parties/NGOs should be entrusted with the task to help in inclusion of voters till nomination date. On the other hand every tahasildar/mandal revenue officer who comparatively have less administrative works can be designated as permanent election officers. E-networking can be adopted for updating voter lists. To correct various maladies in our election process some urgent steps need to be taken in upcoming elections and results reviewed:-
[a] As mobile police parties are ineffective/inadequate to meet various eventualities on the polling day, all sensitive booths should be regulated by two armed guards by engaging ex-army personnel both inside and outside booths. The armed guards should be given a camera to click inside events as videography cannot be provided in all the booths.
[b] All the camps of political parties located in the vicinity of the booths on the polling day in the name of assisting voters are actually intimidation camps controlled by roudy elements. Hence, such camps should be totally abolished.
[c] In case of complaint of intimidation to the agent of a candidate in localities where a particular political party has dominant position, the election should be suspended till a new agent is appointed or provision of appointment of a neutral agent is done at the expense of the candidate. Such a provision would totally eliminate booth capturing tactics.
[d] Since there happens to be a gap of several days between polling and counting dates, all poll-related complaints should be acknowledged and the observer should dispose of the complaints after hearing parties in a transparent way. At present, some of the observers are found to be in a hurry to return to their headquarters the day after polling is over. Eventually they ditto their local counter-parts to avoid complicacy and workload.
[e] The so-called closure of liquor shops on the eve of election is a mockery. In fact, while the shops remain closed, the sales go up during election period. Hence election laws needs to be amended to make transportation or possession of liquor in those days to attract harsh punishment with power to election observers to direct raid, seize and confiscate such materials.
[f] PR Act should be amended to make it mandatory for polling officials and policemen on duty to report to observers on booth capturing, rigging and making non-disclosure a punishable act. This will totally stop rigging as these officials who are party to such booth-level mischievous would forced to report on such events to save and protect their jobs. A form mandating such responsibilities may be prescribed in the ensuing election. This will achieve wonderful results and free booths from the control of muscle power.
Those candidates, who declare their criminal background, assets etc. while filing their nomination, should realise that the evils of vote purchase deals, rigging etc, totally overtake every other measure in the matter of the sanctitity and outcome of the poll. It is time to awaken.
By RC Panda
The writer is a former Deputy Speaker, Odisha