The changes made in election rules ahead of Assembly polls in Bihar, allowing voters aged 65 and above and those infected or suspected to be infected with coronavirus to opt for postal ballot, are fast turning into a political controversy. After the Congress and CPM, the Trinamool Congress and CPI on Monday opposed the decision.
CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury was the first to flag issues related to the changes. The Congress then approached the Election Commission on July 3, asking it to reconsider the decision. The parties said the rules were amended on the suggestions of the EC. On Monday, the CPI and TMC wrote letters to the EC expressing serious objections to the move.
In a two-page letter to Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, TMC general secretary Subrata Bakshi described it as an “arbitrary, malafide, unconstitutional” move against free and fair elections. In his letter, CPI general secretary D Raja said the move “will lead to malpractices and foul play by those parties which are in power and having resources”.
Bakshi, in his letter, expressed his party’s “deepest reservations regarding the amendments notified for the Conduct of Election Rules on 19th June, 2020, and made public by the ECI Spokesperson on 2nd July, 2020”.
“We consider this move of wanting those above 65 years of age to vote through postal ballots as arbitrary, malafide, unconstitutional, and ex-facie a violation of Right to Secrecy of Vote, Right to Free and Fair Elections, and Right to Health of the Citizens of the India,” he said. The TMC said the EC issued the gazetted notification without adequate consultation with political parties.
Yechury, too, had argued that the changes in rules were not preceded by consultation with political parties, which he said was a departure from past practice.
“The amendment made is also discriminatory to the constitutional scheme for elections,” read the TMC letter. It pointed out that the Prime Minister and at least 13 chief ministers are above the age of 65. “According to this latest amendment, they will surely find themselves in an absurd situation where they can campaign but not be allowed to vote in polling booths. It is rather ridiculous,” it said.
The TMC said the process of the postal ballot will put elderly citizens at higher risk. “An elderly person will have to expose himself to the ongoing pandemic at various stages to cast his vote through a postal ballot at the time of recording his vote before the magistrate or specified officer at the time of notarisation. The amendment puts at risk many lives for the sake of petty political benefits,” said the TMC.
The Congress had raised similar points in its petition. A better alternative, the Congress had said, “would be to have a separate voting booth for Senior Citizens to minimise risk of infection”.
Asking the EC to revoke the amendment, the TMC hoped that “in future the EC finds in its wisdom to intervene and bar the Centre from usurping the Election Commission of India’s powers as laid out under Article 324 of the Constitution and The Representation of the People Act, 1951”.
Raja also opposed virtual rallies as a mode of campaigning for the Bihar elections. He pointed out that his party had opposed the proposal of digital campaigns at an all-party meeting called by Bihar’s Chief Electoral Officer on June 23. “The digital propaganda during the election campaign will be extremely expensive. It will deprive a level playing field to political parties,” Raja wrote to Arora.
He asked the poll body to “initiate wider and transparent consultations with all political parties” on these issues.