The Supreme Court Friday dismissed petitions filed by Congress leaders Kamal Nath and Sachin Pilot who had sought directions to the Election Commission to conduct Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) verification on random basis for 10 per cent of votes in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and to provide soft copies of the draft electoral rolls for Madhya Pradesh in text format.
Justices A K Sikri and Ashok Bhushan, who went into the conduct of election rules, rejected the petitions, saying it was “of the opinion that the format in which the draft electoral roll is supplied to the petitioner fulfils the requirement contained in the Election Manual”.
On the plea for random VVPAT verification, the bench noted that similar prayers had been raised in an earlier petition and the Attorney General had then informed the court that “guidelines have already been brought by the Election Commission of India”.
Kamal Nath had cited clause 22.214.171.124 of Chapter XI of the Election Manual, 2016, in support of his demand for a text version of the draft electoral rolls published on January 19 this year. The clause which deals with “putting draft roll on website” says, “additionally, the draft roll shall be put in public domain, at Chief Electoral Officer’s website, in a PDF format on the same day. The draft roll shall be put on website in a text mode and no photographs would appear against the elector’s details. Instead, it would indicate in the box meant for the photograph of elector whether the photograph is available or not”.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal had argued that as per this, “the ECI was required to prepare the draft roll in text mode, albeit without photographs”. This, he said, was necessary because the search option was available only in text format and only then would political parties be able to analyse and scrutinise the data and give suggestions or submit objections if duplicate or fake voters are found.
Sibal said that the voter list for Rajasthan was made available in text format and questioned why the Madhya Pradesh voter list cannot be so provided. Countering this, the ECI said it had put out the voter list on its website in text mode and even images on the website were in text mode and that it had taken a “conscious decision not to give copies of these voter list to the political parties in scannable text mode keeping in view the issue of privacy of voters”.
The Commission also informed the court about the representation dated June 3, 2018 that it received from the Congress party regarding the entries in the rolls and said it had carried out the corrections on May 25 itself, even before receipt of the complaint.
The judgment noted that “the ECI also accepts that during the process of continuous updation from January 19, 2018 to July 31, 2018, there was a net deletion of around 24 lakhs entries from the electoral roll and it is also correct that more than 2 lakh photo entries were flagged as being unclear/blank/repeated photos but out of these entries, 1,04,284 entries were found to be valid and only 97,687 entries had to be corrected during the aforementioned continuous updation of the electoral roll”.
Senior advocate Vikas Singh and advocate Amit Sharma, who appeared for the ECI, told the court that supplying voter list in text form will enable data mining of various nature. The court, which went into the question, praised the role of the ECI and said “there is no doubt about the bonafides of the ECI. It is a matter of record that in the last 25-30 years, ECI has built up the reputation of an impartial body which strives to hold fair elections. It is a Constitutional Authority and has been discharging its functions quite satisfactorily. People of this country, by and large, trust this institution for its impartial manner of discharging its functions”.
After examining the rules, the court concluded “The clause nowhere says that the draft electoral roll has to be put up on the Chief Electoral Officer’s website in a ‘searchable PDF’. Therefore, the petitioner cannot claim, as a right, that the draft electoral roll should be placed on the website in a ‘searchable mode’. It has only to be in ‘text mode’ and it is so provided”.
The court said that if the petitioner wanted, “he can always convert it into searchable mode which, of course, would require him to put his own efforts”.