Debating India


Lessons from Chapra

Saturday 21 May 2005, by VENKATESAN*V.

THE Election Commission, during the term of former Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, assumed that a voter turnout of more than 90 per cent was a reasonable indicator of booth-capturing and that this presumption should be the basis for the Commission to order an inquiry and consider the demand for repoll, on merits. Election officials conniving with booth-capturers, therefore, deliberately kept the polling percentage just below 90, in order to evade the E.C.’s presumption. This possibility was a looming threat to the E.C.’s effort to hold free and fair elections in Bihar.

In the 2004 Chapra Lok Sabha election, which was countermanded, the issue was not of poll percentage but the enormity of the violence as shown on television, and the complaints received by the Commission. In order to verify the complaints, the two-member team deputed by the E.C. decided to check at random Form 17 A, which is the register of voters carrying the serial number of the electors as entered in the electoral roll and their signatures or thumb-impressions. The team retrieved Form 17 A for all Assembly segments of the Lok Sabha constituency from the strongroom where they were kept after the conclusion of polling. The team found that in most of these registers, quite a few signatures were put in the same hand and quite a few thumb impressions looked similar.

The two-member team’s report, made available to Frontline by authoritative sources in the E.C., revealed that in one polling station (No.134 of 38 - Taraiya Assembly segment), voters at serial numbers 68 to 525 (in the electoral roll) were shown to have voted at the respective polling stations in the same order of their names as they appeared in the rolls, which was almost impossible in the normal course of polling and raised a strong suspicion about the fairness of the polling process. In all these cases, the signatures or thumb impressions apparently looked forged and appeared to have been put by a few persons.

The team found similar evidence of booth-capturing in as many as 556 polling stations (out of a total of 1,157) spread across six Assembly segments in the constituency. The report said that Saptharishi perhaps did not have any access to Form 17A while sending his report to the E.C.

THE Chapra experience was a lesson in itself to the E.C. In the Assembly elections in Bihar this year, which were held in three phases, the E.C. made it clear right in the beginning to all the poll personnel that Form 17A would be verified for any discrepancies. This instilled a sense of fear as well as responsibility among them.

The E.C. also drastically reduced the cut-off polling percentage from 90 to around 70, so as to pick polling stations registering more than 70 per cent polling for the scrutiny of Form 17 A. This, in the Commission’s experience, was useful to detect covert cases of booth-capturing, as in its view, the overt cases, in any case, would come to its notice through the media and through individual complaints. The E.C. revealed the exact cut-off voting percentage for this exercise to its polling staff only towards the conclusion of polling in order to minimise the scope for manipulation of voting figures. That the E.C. could choose anything less than 70 per cent as the cut-off figure was a deterrent to polling staff getting involved in malpractices.

Thus the E.C. ordered repoll in as many as 1,000 polling stations on the basis of discrepancies in Form 17 A during the first phase of Assembly elections in Bihar. During the second and third phases, the figure came down to around 450 and 700 respectively, perhaps indicating that the new method had had an impact.

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005

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