Debating India


A challenging assignment

Saturday 23 October 1999, by VENKATESAN*V.

THE elections to the 13th Lok Sabha witnessed a massive exercise in mobilising human and material resources and were a stern test of the efficiency and fairness of the Election Commission (E.C.).

The E.C. had the responsibility of completing the election schedule and constituting the new Lok Sabha in time so that it met before October 21. (Under the Constitution, a new House should be constituted no more than six months after the last sitting of the previous Lok Sabha.) Simultaneously, the E.C. held elections to the State Assemblies in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim and byelections for a few seats in some other States.

It was a challenging task in many ways, but the E.C. did succeed in conducting the process in a reasonably fair, free and efficient manner. Be it the introduction of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in 46 Lok Sabha constituencies spread over 17 States a nd Union Territories or the speedy dissemination of detailed results on its Web site and the Nicnet, the E.C. showed that it could put to good use appropriate high tech facilities in order to make the electoral process smooth. The results from the consti tuencies where EVMs were deployed were declared a few hours after counting began at 8 a.m. on October 6. Given the excellent communications network that had been put in place, the lead positions in the various constituencies were known across the country by the afternoon of October 6 through television and radio.

The E.C. had on more than one occasion to reckon with the limits placed on its authority by the courts. A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court forced the E.C. to withdraw its ban on the publication of the results of opinion polls and exit polls during a specified time-frame during the election process. In another instance, the Patna High Court restrained it from declaring the result of the Lok Sabha election in Madhepura, where Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Laloo Prasad Yadav faced Janata Dal (Un ited) leader Sharad Yadav. The JD(U) had gone to court claiming that polling in the constituency had not been free and fair and seeking a direction to the E.C. to countermand the elections and order a repoll. The court refused to intervene in the electio n process but asked the E.C. to hear the JD(U)’s complaint before declaring the result. As there was no bar on counting, the E.C. permitted the counting to proceed.

Sharad Yadav complained that the RJD had resorted to large-scale rigging and that paramilitary forces had not been deployed in adequate strength. He went on an "indefinite fast" in Patna in protest against the E.C’s refusal to order a repoll. However, Sh arad Yadav changed tack when he learnt that he was leading by a comfortable margin. He presented his case before the E.C. on October 7, but did not ask for a repoll. Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill and Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh permitted t he Returning Officer to declare the results.

The E.C. faced another embarrassment when the Kerala High Court directed on October 4 the E.C. and the Chief Electoral Officer of the State to conduct booth-wise counting of votes in the State. The E.C. had decided that where EVMs were not used, votes wo uld be counted by mixing the ballot papers of the Assembly segments to prevent any intimidation and victimisation of voters by the losing candidates. This procedure was followed in the 1996 and 1998 general elections. The E.C. challenged the High Court’ s order in the Supreme Court and obtained a stay on October 5.

THIS was the first time that polling for Lok Sabha elections was held in five phases, spread over a month. The candidates and voters who figured in the earlier phases had a long wait until October 6 for the result in certain pockets. This dampened popula r enthusiasm.

The E.C. opted for a long-drawn election process in order to give sufficient time for the paramilitary forces to move from one State to another. The demand for larger contingents of paramilitary forces came from the State governments; the E.C., in consul tation with the Union Home Ministry, evolved a plan to meet the demand. Gill told a television channel that the E.C. could hold the next Lok Sabha elections on a single day if the political parties reposed confidence in the ability of the State police fo rces to ensure security on polling day.

There was violence on polling day in some States, including Bihar and northeastern States, such as Tripura and Assam, during the last three phases. Pointing to this, the E.C’s critics said that the objective of phasing out the elections had not been achi eved. Gill’s response was that tackling insurgency and terrorism was the State’s responsibility.

Polling was by and large peaceful in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Most of the violence was seen to be the work of political parties, insurgents and terrorists. Seventeen people (10 in Assam and seven in Tripura) were killed by insurgents on October 3, the last day of polling. Most of the victims were police and paramilitary personnel.

Allegations of rigging came from several places in Bihar; in most cases, the charges were directed at the ruling RJD. Repoll was ordered in booths from where serious complaints were received. The BJP-Janata Dal(U) combine, which made most of the complain ts against the RJD, found, when the results favoured them, that their protest had been an exaggerated response.

The long-drawn election schedule perhaps had an unintended effect on voters who went to the polls in the later phases. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh said that the exit poll results may have influenced the "floating voters" among them in fa vour of the BJP in his State. In some contexts, however, the poll schedule appears to have had little direct impact on the parties’ prospects. For instance, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh went to the polls during the last phases but threw up vastly different re sults.

Did the E.C. meet its stated objective for scheduling the elections in September-October rather than immediately after the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, as preferred by the BJP and its allies? The E.C. gave the reason that it wanted to complete the revis ion of electoral rolls. However, it cannot claim that the electoral rolls were fully updated and that all eligible voters were duly enrolled. There were many instances of voters, including VVIPs, finding their names missing from the lists. In a few const ituencies in Tamil Nadu, caste Hindus reportedly prevented Dalits from voting.

By hindsight, however, it is clear that the country could not have gone to the polls until July as Kargil war was on. Once the war was over, the E.C. announced the schedule, keeping in mind the time needed to make administrative arrangements.

The monsoon did disrupt campaign and polling arrangements in some areas; polling was postponed in constituencies which were affected by floods - four in Bihar and one each in Assam and Manipur.

All things considered, the E.C. may be said to have passed the test, putting up a creditable performance.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 22, Oct. 23 - Nov. 5, 1999.

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