This Article is From May 09, 2014

The Real Story of BJP vs the Election Commission

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

In taking on the Election Commission (EC) and particularly the chief election commissioner (CEC) VS Sampath in Varanasi, the BJP was not responding to just an immediate incident. Actually, a confrontation with the EC has been building for some time. In the opinion of senior BJP functionaries, Sampath has been a poorer, less competent CEC than his recent predecessors. At least one BJP office-bearer compared Sampath to the man he succeeded in 2012, SY Quraishi, and said Quraishi was a much more authoritative, on-the-ball CEC.

The 2014 election, in the perception of the BJP leadership, has seen greater violence, instances of booth-capturing and deliberate injection of discrepancies in voters' lists in key constituencies than elections in the past 10-15 years. "Things have regressed," one BJP MP said, "and Sampath has to take some of the blame."

In Varanasi, when the District Magistrate (DM) did not give permission for a public meeting to be addressed by Narendra Modi, the CEC supported him. The CEC said he was going by the DM's "professional" judgement. One of the EC's mandates is to make an independent assessment of whether a DM or government official's "professional" judgement is the product of an autonomous decision or has been influenced by pressure from the state government and the local political establishment. The BJP argues Sampath didn't bother to err on the side of zeal and proactive-ness. He simply went along with the DM's wishy-washy and contradictory claims.

Even before Varanasi, the complaints against Sampath were mounting, at least to the BJP's mind. The party blames the EC for not sequestering state electoral officials from provincial political pressures in Maharashtra. The case of missing names in voters' lists in middle-class neighbourhoods of Pune is often brought up. A similar situation occurred in several districts and constituencies of central and eastern Uttar Pradesh. It was found members of the same family, living under the same roof, had been assigned polling booths at a considerable distance from each other.

"In at least one case that I know of," a senior BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh said, "parents and a son living in the same house were assigned three different booths, far from each other. They should all have been assigned the nearest booth." While some degree of rectification was done after BJP workers got voters to fill forms asking for new booths, the extent of the problem remains an imponderable. The BJP believes it was part of a design to put its voters to discomfort and help the Samajwadi Party (SP), which runs the government in Lucknow. This may or may not be true, but somewhere the EC faltered in exercising due diligence.

The issue of booth-capturing has also been highlighted, again in central and eastern Uttar Pradesh. The BJP feels this may have lost it a few seats to the SP, particularly in the round of polling on April 24. This led to repeated requests to the EC to increase paramilitary presence in the remaining rounds of voting in Uttar Pradesh.

In West Bengal too, the compromising of booth-level integrity has been brought up. To be fair, this may not change the broader result in the state, since the Trinamool Congress is clearly ahead of the others. However, after the tight monitoring of the 2009 parliamentary election and the 2011 assembly election, booth-capturing and rigging seem to have made a comeback in West Bengal.

Plucking a set of statistics from the air may be revealing. On May 7, constituencies in Bihar and West Bengal, neighbouring states in eastern India, with similar summer-time temperatures, voted. By 11.00 am, 22.36 per cent of voters had exercised their franchise in Bihar. The comparable figure for West Bengal was 45 per cent.

Was this because the voters of West Bengal were more conscientious and enthusiastic? On the other hand, was somebody in Nirvachan Sadan asleep at the wheel? Many political parties - not just the BJP - are wondering.

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