ECI Press conference ahead of polling day, BJP puts its two bits in, concerns on counting of postal ballots etc. remain

In an unexpected press conference the day before counting day, June 4, CEC Kumar dismisses Opposition and independent citizens’ concerns over polling exercise, asks for proof of attempts to influence elections

News of a sudden press conference announced by the controversial Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), Rajiv Kumar on Monday raised a buzz! The weekend had been busy with first the exit polls (Saturday June 1) followed by heavyweight Opposition party delegations to the ECI to insist on a catholic and robust adherence to law and procedure during counting on June 4, 2024. Jairam Ramesh, senior Congressman and General Secretary in Charge of Communications had posted an article from National Herald at 6.49 p.m. on June 1, soon after the Exit polls were aired. In this it has been alleged that the caretaker union home minister, Amit Shah has been “calling up Collectors in 150 Constituencies!” The Collector or DM plays a crucial role on counting day and with the conduct of the ECI being far from exemplary this has caused a national uproar. District magistrates and collectors are the returning officers of their respective districts during election. Mr. Ramesh claimed that Mr. Shah had already spoken with 150 district magistrates or collectors.

“You cannot spread a rumour and bring everyone under a cloud of suspicion,” the CEC said in response on Monday. Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar on Monday “dared the opposition to share evidence of allegations that returning officers and district magistrates were influenced to vitiate the poll process so the panel could take action against them.” The opposition should also tell the Commission about those trying to influence the poll process before the counting of votes begins, Mr. Kumar said at a press conference. He was flanked by Election Commissioners Gyanesh Kumar and S.S. Sandhu.

The Commission had made preparations to deal with any attempt to influence the poll process but these allegations have come from within the country itself, he said in an apparent dig at the opposition. Taking exception to allegations that district magistrates were being influenced, the CEC said, “Those levelling allegations should say which DM was influenced and we will punish them. They should tell us before the counting process begins.”

Demands by multi-party delegation met

Meanwhile, the ECI had accepted all the demands made by the multi-party delegation that met the panel on Sunday, and asserted that the issues raised by them were part of the election process going on for seven decades.”Some demands were made by a multi-party delegation. We have agreed to all the demands,” Mr. Kumar said, indicating that most of the issues raised by the multi-party delegation were part of election manuals.

“This process has been going on for 70 years… We have instructed every RO/ARO. These are our orders and they are no joke… Everyone has been instructed to follow the handbook/manuals,” Mr. Kumar said. Mr. Kumar admitted that the Election Commission had failed to counter the mischievous narratives spread during the poll process.

Concerns on timing of counting postal ballots

The muddying of waters by executive diktat on counting of postal ballots has raised more suspicions and concerns. Till the 2019 LS elections, according to the Conduct of Elections Manual and its rules and procedures, the counting of postal ballots was taken up first and EVM counting began 30 minutes after that. And all postal ballots had to be counted before the EVM counting could be completed.

Hence, just ahead of the counting of votes in the 18th Lok Sabha elections on June 4, the INDIA bloc on Sunday asked the Election Commission to issue directions to Returning Officers complete the counting of postal ballots before finalising the EVM counting.

The Opposition’s concern stems from a change in the EC’s guidelines in 2019 for counting of postal ballots. Till the 2019 LS elections, the counting of postal ballots was taken up first and EVM counting began 30 minutes after that. And all postal ballots had to be counted before the EVM counting could be completed.

“Under no circumstances, should the results of all the rounds of the EVM counting be announced before finalising the postal ballot counting,” stated the EC’s Handbook for Counting Agents in February 2019. Now, the postal ballot counting starts 30 minutes before the EVM counting, but does not have to be completed before the EVMs.

However, soon after the 2019 elections, the EC decided to tweak the guidelines as the number of postal ballots had gone up, especially after the introduction of the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS), and the mandatory counting of VVPAT slips of five randomly selected polling stations per Assembly constituency or Assembly segment.

Senior counsel Kapil Sibal explained this issue in an interview that he released on ‘X’ on the afternoon of Saturday, June 1.

In directions to all Chief Electoral Officers on May 18, 2019, the EC withdrew its earlier guideline that the penultimate round of EVM counting should be taken up only after postal ballots counting is complete. Instead, it said, the EVM counting “can go on irrespective of the stage of postal ballot counting”. Once the EVM counting is complete, the VVPAT slips can be counted. It also revised the rule for mandatory re-counting of postal ballots. Earlier, postal ballots were recounted if the margin of victory was less than the total number of postal ballots. Now, the postal ballots that are rejected as invalid during counting would be re-verified if the margin is less than the number of such ballots.

While a total of 22.71 lakh postal ballots were received during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections or 0.37% of the total 60.76 crore valid votes, the number of postal ballots is expected to be higher this time. Apart from service voters like defence forces, who are deployed outside their home states, the EC in October 2019 introduced postal ballots for essential service workers, those above 80 years of age and persons with disabilities. Since then, the age limit has been increased to 85 years for seniors and Covid-19 patients have been included in the list of those eligible for postal ballots.

As the guidelines stand today, as per the 2023 Handbook for Counting Agents, “After 30 minutes of commencement of postal ballot counting, the EVM counting can start and continue irrespective of the stage of postal ballot counting. Once the EVM counting is completed, the VVPAT slip counting can also start.”

With the number of postal ballots expected to increase, the Opposition parties have expressed concern over the counting process. In their letter to the EC, they pointed out that the winning margin in the 2020 Bihar elections was 12,700 votes for the state, while the number of postal ballots was 52,000. “In fact, there was a huge outcry in Bihar as it was the first election (which was conducted after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic) where the postal ballots were counted at the end of the counting of EVM votes,” the INDIA parties said.

They asked the EC to withdraw the May 2019 letter and to issue directions in consonance with Rule 54A of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, which says “the returning officer shall first deal with the postal ballot papers…”

Not to be left behind, the BJP knocks on EC’s door against “coordinated bid to undermine poll process”

The BJP delegation also sought a “public statement affirming the integrity of the electoral process and warning against any attempts to disrupt the democratic process”.

Not to be outdone, the ruling BJP, under fire from various sections for its imposition on the ECI, also met the ECI on Sunday. Within hours of the INDIA bloc delegation meeting the Election Commission Sunday, the BJP approached the poll panel, complaining about “grave and coordinated attempts by opposition parties, led by the Indian National Congress, and certain motivated civil society groups to undermine the integrity of the ongoing electoral process”.

“These efforts are a direct attack on our democratic institutions and pose significant risks to public order and trust in the electoral system,” the ruling party said.

Submitting a petition, this delegation comprising Union Ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal, accompanied by party leader Om Pathak, urged the EC to “take cognizance of the systematic attempts to undermine the electoral process and take stringent action against those responsible”. The delegation also sought a “public statement affirming the integrity of the electoral process and warning against any attempts to disrupt the democratic process”.

“The decisive mandates given by the Indian electorate in the 2014 and 2019 general elections, which brought the BJP under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power, have been repeatedly challenged by the opposition through baseless allegations and actions,” the petition said.

“Despite clear verdicts from the people, the opposition has resorted to a series of unfounded claims aimed at discrediting the election process. Opposition parties and their affiliated civil societies have systematically orchestrated campaigns over the past several years to target the judiciary and the Election Commission of India (ECI),” it said. “The pattern is clear: first, target the institutions; then, the election process; and if court verdicts do not favour them, target the judicial verdicts.”

The BJP urged the EC to “ensure the safety and security of the electoral process during the counting and announcement of results, including enhanced monitoring and security measures to prevent any attempts at violence or unrest”.

After meeting the EC, Goyal told reporters, “I think the mandate given by the people of India both in 2014 and 2019, and the likely mandate of the 2024 general elections, expected on June 4, has unnerved the opposition parties and certain non-governmental organisations, so-called civil society groups, who cannot accept a popular leader of the masses who has delivered for the well-being of 1.4 billion Indians.”



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