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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 15, New Delhi, March 27, 2021

Narendra Modi versus West Bengal electorate - Will India’s Election Czar Play Neutral? | Sankar Ray

Friday 26 March 2021

by Sankar Ray

Is the Election Commission of India, headed by Sunil Arora, surreptitiously working to help Bharatiya Janata Party win the West Bengal Assembly election whose first of eight-phase polling will begin on 27 March? Arora, a 1980 batch Indian Administrative Officer of Rajasthan cadre is former Chairman and Managing Director of Indian Airlines and a Secretary in the Ministry of Information and broadcasting, he rose up in career during the prime ministerial tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and further during the Narendra Modi era. When he was picked up by Modi in 2018, a retired IAS officer said, “If the BJP thinks that by appointing Arora they have their own man at the helm of the Election Commission during the 2019 general elections, they could be in a for a surprise,” said a retired bureaucrat who has worked with Arora.” His colleagues informally described him as one who could prove more than capable of dealing with the political pressures that could come his way’ And he proved that beyond doubts.

Arora’s career blossomed under the BJP-led NDA governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi and his appointment to the poll panel was seen as a smart move when it was evident that he was set to be the Chief Election Commissioner for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

However, many who have worked with Arora insist that he, a climber, won’t hesitate to dance to Modi tine. Another retired officer recalled how Arora, at the helm of IA, stood up to political pressure. “I have seen Arora firmly tell Shahnawaz Husain and Rajiv Pratap Rudy that, being Ministers of Civil Aviation, they were free to dictate and change policy. But they should not try and micro-manage the running of IA,”

The rest is history.

Remember how Arora was banteringly tweeted by the veteran Congress leader Kapil Sibal on his blatantly manipulative activities to serve the interests of Narendra Modi and BJP after mid-May 2019: ”To: Sunil Arora (CEC) Your legendary clean chits showed the courage of two drones you were eyes and ears of PM and not Lavasa’s clones steadfastly you held on to what you believed was right for the Model Code of Conduct was not within your sight Democracy laments !” (https://twitter.com/KapilSibal/status/1129955412118085633). It is known the world over among political scientists and analysts that Arora gave clean chits to Modi, but for which the phenomenal electoral triumph (albeit on paper only) couldn’t happen. All credible pre-poll surveys, conducted by foreign newspapers predicted a clean defeat for BJP-led NDA.

The poetic tweet was a sequel to Arora’s statement, that diversion of views was not new among the members of the Election Commission and that they not expected to be clones of each other. "The three members of EC are not expected to be template or clones of each other. There have been so many times in the past when there has been a vast diversion of views as it can, and should be.”," Sunil Arora had said. There were reports that Arora’s fellow commissioner Ashok Lavasa announced that he would to recuse himself from meetings related to model code violations till he was not allowed to record his dissent”. The tradition of respecting and recording dissent was killed by Arora to prove his unflinching subservience to Sangh Parivar (read Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.)

Arora’s visit to North Bengal less than a week before the beginning of polling was very unusual. None of his predecessors did it. They visited state capitals only. One is reminded of Tripura state assembly polls in February, the first state election in Arora period. The then Tripura state committee secretary Bijan Dhur alleged with documents that the electronic voting machines (EVM ) were supplied by a company, based in Gujarat and a contract for voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) was awarded to a well-known BJP functionary-owned company. Dhur’s complaint to the ECI was brushed aside without explanation. Take Bihar assembly polls in October–November 2020. Narrow margin helped the National Democratic Alliance – the JD(U), BJP, the Vikassheel Insaan Party and the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) win 21 seats.

Eleven constituencies where nail-biting finish took place during counting with the margin between victory and defeat was less than 1,000 votes. Six candidates expressed dissatisfaction with the counting process and challenged the decisions of returning officers.

Narendra Singh aka Bogo Singh, Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate filed a complaint with ECI after Raj Kumar Singh of the Lok Janshakti Party defeated him with the margin of 333 votes. He has shouted for recounting of all EVMs, VVPATs and postal ballots. Shakti Singh Yadav of RJD was defeated by 12 votes and sought recounting of EVMs, VVPATs and postal ballots but the plea was rejected. But another RJD candidate Sudhakar Singh of RJD who defeated Ambika Singh of Bahujan Samaj Party with margin of 189 votes, but demand for recounting was responded to and the verdict was reversed. Jitendra Paswan of CPI(ML) lost to JD(U)’s Sunil Kumar by 462 votes. The CPI(ML) has demanded a recount of votes, alleging that the local JD(U) MP was illegally present during the vote counting process. The demand for recounting was rejected while recounting of postal ballots which are counted first, deprived CPI from victory (despite having been declared winner at first).

Arora seems ostentatiously concerned about free and fair election. His subordinates – handpicked election observers and police observers seem taking orders from BJP leaders from Kailas Vijaybarhiya to state BJP president Dilip Ghosh to turncoat Mukul Roy to decide which IAS and IPS officers to be recommended for exit from electoral responsibilities. Small wonder, police observer Vivek Dube rushed to Dinhata in the north-eastern tip of West Bengal literally like a running dog of Sangh Parivar to catch up with Vijayvargiya to investigate the ‘mysterious’ death of a local BJP leader but apathetic towards a couple of killings of Trinamul Congress functionaries.

But there are indications of readiness of ECI and coterie around Arora for electronic manipulation to help BJP win in case of defeat of large number of BJP candidates. The Citizens’ Commission on Elections a civil society group, chaired by retired Supreme Court judge Justice Madan Lokur, comprising retired judges, former civil servants, university professors, senior journalists and activists, released a report on 30 January pointing out ‘fallibility’ or ‘vulnerability’ of EVM and , VVPAT. Among the members are
former CIC Wajahat Habibullah, former Madras high court Judge, Justice Hari Paranthaman, economist Arun Kumar, civil society activist John Dayal, senior journalist Pamela Philipose, and Dr Subhashis Banerjee, professor of computer science at IIT Delhi. CCE’s first report, ‘Is the Indian EVM and VVPAT System Fit for Democratic Elections?’, reviewed the functioning of EVMs primarily on the touchstone of whether and how far their use complied with important ‘democracy principles’ detailed in the enclosed summary.

Former Prasar Bharati chief and ex-secretary, ministry of culture Jawhar Sircar, releasing the report in Kolkata, said, “In the 2019 parliamentary election, VVPAT and electronic votes showed discrepancies. That is not acceptable. We are of the opinion that all VVPATs should be counted along with votes. VVPAT matching is desirable at this stage otherwise manipulations, if any, can never be detected”

Queerly enough the ECI refused to meet CCE to discuss the report. “During the process of drafting the report, we reached out to the ECI several times, but they didn’t respond” lamented a CCE member John Dayal. CCE coordinator M.G. Devasahayam told The Wire, “In the recent years India’s democracy has been called into question by international watchdogs. In such a condition, we are advocating to have a free and fair election. With this report we are trying to make people aware of the current electoral process and what needs to done to ensure voters’ confidence.”

Upal Chakraborty, an IIT-an and MBA from an IIM, who served as a chief information officer at a leading corporate group is on record expressing genuine apprehensions. “Doubts about the sanctity of the voting process emanates from a Control Unit placed after the VVPAT machine. It is felt that after displaying the correct choice to the voter it may not be recorded accurately in the CU. The VVPAT is a simple printer that prints on paper, displays the image to the voter for 7 seconds, and sends the paper to a sealed unit. These paper trails are then counted for randomized units, 5 for each Assembly segment, and tallied with results as recorded by the EVM. I fail to understand why the issue crops up again and again and how the CU is relevant to the process. The only technically valid apprehension is whether the VVPAT displays something and prints something else. But that is not what is being said”

Furthermore, Chakraborty, adds, “If the votes are not being recorded accurately, the voter should create a ruckus and a test vote recorded in the presence of polling agents. If this too is erroneous, or when the phenomenon is repeated in a polling station, the electoral process should be suspended for the day and repoll ordered”

He suggests that the Opposition polling agents ‘be on their toes and ready to intervene when any deviation is brought to notice. Voters should also verify whether the VVPAT display voting correctly before leaving the polling centre.

Sukla Sen, a human rights defender, suggests, ‘For any assembly constituency, at least 10% of EVMs selected randomly, after the counting is over, the VVPAT slips to be tallied with the votes recorded by each EVM – separately.’

Arora whose tenure-end is a few weeks away is conspicuously unpredictable. Maybe, he is committed to help Modi-Shah hukmat fulfill the latter’s determination to begin the saffron rule in what was a communist citadel for over four decades.

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