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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Explained: Amid Assam polls, a look at EVM transport and campaign bans

Elections in Assam have been marked by controversies involving EVMs in a candidate's vehicle and the relaxation of a campaign ban on minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. A look at the Election Commission protocol, and precedents

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi |
Updated: April 13, 2021 8:01:03 am
Election officials with EVMs during the first phase of voting in Assam. The polls in Assam concluded on Tuesday. (AP)

Last week, Assembly elections in Assam — which ended on Tuesday — saw the Election Commission at the centre of two controversies. In the first, an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) was found in a private vehicle belonging to a BJP candidate’s spouse. The second controversy involved the EC’s decision to relax its decision to ban BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for 48 hours from campaigning. Both drew strong political reactions with Congress accusing the Commission of failing in it duties.

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What exactly happened in the EVM controversy?

The controversy broke after the second phase of voting wrapped up in Assam. Within hours of the end of voting on April 1, a video showing polling officers transporting an EVM in a vehicle owned by a BJP candidate surfaced on social media. The machine was used for voting in Polling Station 149 at Indira M V School in the Ratabari Assembly seat in Barak Valley, and the car belonged to the wife of Krishnendu Paul, a BJP contestant in the nearby Patharkandi seat.

According to the EC, the car in which the polling party was originally transporting the EVM had broken down around 9 pm on its way to the strong room. Although the presiding officer had requested the sector officer for a replacement vehicle and was assured of one, he and three of his colleagues eventually hitched a ride in a private vehicle without checking who it belonged to. They realised their mistake only after a group of 50 people intercepted the car near Kanaishil in Karimganj district. The polling party was “attacked” and held hostage for almost an hour by the mob until the District Election Officer and the SP of Karimganj district arrived at the spot.

The EC acknowledged that the officers, by travelling in a private vehicle, had violated the transport protocol for polled and reserve EVMs, and suspended six officers for the lapse. While saying that the seal of the EVM was intact, the EC ordered repoll for polling station 149.

What is the EC’s protocol for the transportation of EVMs?

The Commission’s transport protocol for polled and reserve EVMs dictates that the voting machines, under no circumstances, should be taken in private custody or a private place. And also, that all EVMs, after voting is complete, should be under cover of armed police at all times. So the polling party’s decision to hitch a ride in a private vehicle amounted to taking the EVM (used in Polling Station 149 of Ratabari seat) and hence was a violation of the EC’s rules.

How often do such mistakes happen?

Such slip-ups are not new. Lately, there have been quite a few in different Assembly elections. It’s difficult to say whether these mistakes have increased or are being noticed easily because of social media’s reach. The most prominent incident took place on November 27, 2018 during the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, when four election officers took EVMs to a hotel against EC’s directions. The four officers were replaced immediately, but no repoll was ordered since the machines in question were part of the reserve stock and were not used for voting in the state.

The same year during the Rajasthan Assembly elections, the EC removed of returning officer of Pali after an EVM was reportedly found at the home of a BJP candidate. In another incident, EC suspended two officials after a sealed voting machine was found on the road in Rajasthan’s Baran district. The machine was part of the reserve stock.

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What happened in the second controversy in Assam?

Last week, the EC banned Himanta Biswa Sarma from campaigning for 48 hours for violating the Model Code of Conduct. The decision to ban him was taken on a complaint by the Congress that Sarma had “openly threatened” to send Bodoland Peoples’ Party (BPF) chief Hagrama Mohilary to jail by “misusing” the National Investigation Agency. In these elections, BPF is part of the Congress-led alliance.

In his speech at a rally held on March 28, Sarma had said, “If Hagrama Mohilary does extremism with (insurgent) Batha he will go to jail. This is a straight talk… Already got a lot of evidence. This case is being given to NIA (National Investigation Agency)… And I do not care any Hagrama .. Tagrama. These arms recovery cases will be counted one by one after the election.” The EC debarred him from campaigning as it felt that his statement was a violation of the Model Code of Conduct. However, in less than a day, the Commission relaxed the ban to 24 hours, which drew a lot of criticism.

BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma at a rally in Hajo on Sunday. (PTI Photo)

But then why did EC relax this ban to 24 hours subsequently?

The decision to reduce Sarma’s punishment came after he submitted a representation to the EC urging a rethink: “…I would like to humbly state that during my entire career in politics more particularly during my election campaigns I have not attacked anyone at personal level and also, never violated any norms of Model Code of Conduct issued by the Election Commission of India.”

He said that a ban in the last leg of elections would cause “irreparable loss and prejudice” to him and his party since his seat goes to polls on April 6. The Commission accepted his apology and halved the ban.

Is this unprecedented?

The decision is definitely rare. The only other time the EC lifted a ban was seven years ago, during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Back then, the EC lifted its ban on BJP leader Amit Shah’s electioneering in Uttar Pradesh after he assured the poll panel that he would not “make any utterances violative” of the conduct code. This was the first time the EC had used its extraordinary powers under Article 324 to prohibit someone from campaigning. The ban had been imposed on Shah and Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan. While Shah apologised, Khan remained defiant and so the relaxation was done only in the former’s case.

However, after that, although the EC has debarred several people from electioneering for violating the MCC, Sarma’s case is only the second example when EC partially rolled its ban back.

Has the Commission reacted to the criticism from political parties?

Traditionally, the EC refrains from responding to allegations made by political parties. However, lately, it has made a few exceptions with the Trinamool Congress since the party has been regularly accusing the EC of acting at the behest of the BJP.

In the case of the two controversies in Assam, the EC hasn’t reacted to the Congress’ allegation that panel had “singularly failed” to discharge its obligations to preserve the purity of the electoral process. However, speaking to this newspaper off the record, a senior officer of the EC said that the EVM incident was a stray one and the Commission has ordered a repoll to address any doubts that may have arisen in the public’s mind. As for Sarma, the officer said that the Commission cannot penalise a candidate if he has apologised and expressed regret.

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