Under attack over handling high-profile Varanasi constituency, the Election Commission on day rejected any differences at the top as sought to be suggested by EC H S Brahma and dismissed the BJP charge that it was timid and weak in taking decisions.
The Commission also rejected any bias in allowing roadshow by Rahul Gandhi and UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav but denying permission for Narendra Modi to address a public meeting in his constituency from a venue of BJP’s choice on Wednesday in a communally sensitive area.
In an interview to PTI, Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath pointed out that Brahma is also party to all the decisions and any attack on the Commission applied to all of them.
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He strongly defended the decision of the Returning Officer of Varanasi and ruled out his removal from the constituency which will witness polling on Monday.
He dismissed allegations of partisan approach in quickly ordering filing a complaint against Modi in Gandhinagar while seeking a report in case of Rahul Gandhi for alleged violation of voting secrecy in Amethi.
“The top leadership comprising all three Commissioners functions, acts as a team and it is discharging its constitutional responsibilities with firmness and with the required promptitude.
“We also strongly deny that there are any differences among ourselves. All decisions, including in this issue relating to Varanasi meeting venue, all decisions have been taken only unanimously.
“We have no difference whatsoever. In fact, the decisions we have taken about Varanasi, the full Commission held a press conference on May 8 in which all these decisions were explained to the entire media.
The BJP, including its Prime Ministerial candidate Modi, had launched an all out attack on the EC over denial of permission to hold a public meeting in Beniyabagh in Varanasi, which was refused citing security concerns.
Sampath said the Commission acted with full alacrity and after verifying ground realities from district administration, which were further got verified at the level of Chief Secretary and DGP, a suitable reply was also given.
All this exercise was done from mid day on May 7 and there was no delay in either taking the decision or conveying it, he said.
Asked about Brahma’s statement in media interactions yesterday about delays in conveying the decision on denial of permission to Modi and whether there was need for him to go public about it, he said “this is a question which you should ask him only.
“But as far as I am concerned, my relations with him have been excellent. We have been attending Commission meetings two days in a week as a full Commission. During elections, we sit almost everyday. We had a Commission meeting today also.
“I can tell you we never have any disagreement which cannot be sorted out by discussion. We always discuss, we come to an agreement. All our decisions so far have been unanimous, including this issue (Varanasi).”
Asked if there was any delay in conveying it as suggested by Brahma, Sampath said in spite of the preoccupation, EC took so much of time and got itself engaged in this.
“We did not simply accept whatever was told by the District Magistrate. We were also trying to explore the various alternatives. Our anxiety was in a matter like this an opportunity for campaigning should be given to everyone. It did not happen on that day.
Sampath said Brahma was talking in the context of the Varanasi DM.
“We found that some kind of exchanges between the DM and the party functionaries must be going on at the local level but we are not privy to those things sitting in Delhi,” he said.
About Brahma’s statement that the Commission should have written to Jaitley promptly, he said the EC did write a reply on that day itself to the party.
“But we cannot simply give a reply as soon as we get a communication. We have to examine. We have to explore possibilities. We have to satisfy ourselves that the reasoning is not flawed. After doing all the exercise, ultimately the reply was communicated within that day May 7.”
To a question on senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley’s attack that ‘timid men occupy high offices’ and that they were incapable of taking bold decisions, the CEC said “we don’t agree. We dismiss that kind of a charge that we are a timid people, etc.”
He said timidity, boldness, etc. were personal traits. “We act as a Commission. I don’t think as Commission anybody can accuse us of being timid or lacking in boldness, etc.”
Sampath said every case has to be examined on its merits. In this case, when the Commission found that law and order administration at the local level had taken relevant facts, circumstances and all professional inputs into account, then the Commission came to a conclusion about the suitability of the venue for public meeting.
“We really do not think there is any kind of boldness involved in overruling that and asking them that they should go ahead with the meeting at the same venue at the same time whatever may be the consequences because this is a matter of law and order.
“The Commission which is sitting so far away from the scene with no inputs other than the inputs which we have been able to gather in that limited time from the district administration and from the state level.
“We were not in a position to come to any other conclusion to give a directive. In any case, I do not think anyone can substitute the judgement of the district administration and local law and order machinery like SP and others,” he said.
Asked if the Commission went by the view that there was a genuine threat to Modi, the CEC said, “No. Not like that. The proposed meeting in that venue at that point of time was to be in the night.”
He said the kind of circumstances obtaining relating to that venue, the perception of the law and order machinery and the advance liaison committee of police officers including intelligence officers of the state and a Gujarat police official came to a conclusion that the venue was not safe.
“We also had a look at that report. They themselves had concluded that the venue was not safe. So, in the absence of any material to overrule that or to disagree with that, the Commission was not able to give any directive to the contrary to the district administration,” Sampath said.
Asked if the Commission fully backed the Varanasi RO, he said “the Commission stands by their judgement, their assessment but at the same time Commission believes in providing level-playing field equal opportunity to every candidate. We would certainly like our officers to strive towards that to the extent possible.”
To a question whether he regretted that Modi was not given permission to hold a meeting in a place of his choice, Sampath said, “the Commission will always regret when a campaigner, particularly a leader of that stature, is not able to address a public meeting.
“That’s a different story. But reasons behind the actions of the DM we have no reason to disagree with.”
When queried whether its decision to appoint a special observer showed less faith in the returning officer, Sampath said the appointment of Tamil Nadu CEO Praveen Kumar was a typical response of the Commission to meet any local situation.
“It does not in any way mean it is a reflection on DM or RO or the district administration. But at the same time, since it is a critical election in a critical constituency dealing with such high-profile candidates, we thought instead of each and every issue from the field coming to the Commission, it would be better if a senior representative of the Commission is stationed there.”
Therefore, he said, the EC selected a very senior officer and positioned him there to provide continuous guidance to the RO.