A campaign against the E.C.

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

CASUAL observers of the Gujarat elections might have been forgiven for believing that the Bharatiya Janata Party's principal opposition was not the Congress(I), but the Election Commission (E.C.) of India. Allegations that the E.C. was biased against the BJP marked the party's campaign from the outset. Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh's birth in a Christian family was used to insinuate that he favoured Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. At rally after rally, the words `James' and `Michael' were spat out by party leaders in a manner normally reserved for four-letter abuse.

True to form, the BJP had no facts to back its communal polemic. But that was only until the voting day, when thousands of people in Maninagar, Chief Minister Narendra Modi's constituency, made their way to polling booths only to discover that their names were not on the official rolls. Similar complaints came in from dozens of other constituencies, and in Junagadh, BJP candidate Mahendra Mashru led a protest strike against what he alleged was the wilful deletion of almost 30,000 names. At some locations, voters discovered that while the names of dead relatives were on the rolls, theirs were not; at others, people found out that they were listed at addresses they had long moved out from.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia, along with his family, were listed as residents of Naroda, although they had moved to the Sarkhej Assembly constituency several years ago.

By late in the afternoon, Ahmedabad's gargantuan gambling market sharply slashed the odds on a Congress(I) victory. That misjudgement, which some believe was a bid to mitigate potential losses caused by one-sided betting on a BJP triumph, sent alarm bells ringing in the BJP. And the missing names were highlighted as part of an E.C.-run conspiracy.

Shortly after 4-00 p.m., party spokesperson Amitabh Sinha charged Lyngdoh with using "his entire machinery" against the BJP. In Maninagar, mobs gathered to protest this outrage, egged on by Modi, who asked them to pen protests to the E.C. By evening, BJP leaders claimed that the names of between 73,000 and 250,000 potential voters had been erased from the official rolls.

But at least one element of the furore was decidedly spurious. The BJP, and sections of the local media, blithely assumed that all the missing names were of its supporters. In fact, Muslim voters in Maninagar's Millat Nagar, its sole Muslim-dominated pocket, experienced problems identical to those of their Hindu neighbours. Several people who held valid E.C. identification cards and had voted in all elections over the past quarter century, were turned away. Complaints that Muslim voters' names were missing from the rolls also came in from dozens of other constituencies, where the Congress(I) was hoping to register victories. In the event, Modi won Maninagar by well over 70,000 votes, an indication of just how few BJP voters were in fact disenfranchised.

What had actually happened soon became clear. Since 1995, the voter rolls in Ahmedabad had been revised on six occasions. Since the E.C. has no enumeration staff of its own, the actual process of preparing rolls is carried out by State government employees such as schoolteachers. The E.C. used computer software to merge the data gathered with the 1995 rolls. The software checked the data for duplicate surnames, and then scanned middle and first names, and finally house numbers and addresses. For reasons that are unclear, the software did not quite work as designed. Dozens of names were erroneously deleted, or, more frequently, listed at the addresses entered in 1995. The final rolls used in these elections showed that the number of voters in some areas had dropped, a surprising development that was put down to the post-riot migration of Muslims.

However, none of the political parties paid much attention to this development. Normally, party agents are quick to detect errors in the rolls, but computerisation created problems at this level too. All major parties handed over computer-printed voter slips to their agents, rather than making them scan lists individually. The agents, in turn, focussed on distributing the pre-printed slips that they had been given, instead of checking the original rolls themselves. Had any of the parties bothered to scan through the lists with care, and to check them against the names of eligible voters on the ground, the problem would have been detected early and suitably addressed. Lyngdoh proved to be a politically convenient target to help gloss over the failure in election management. A wholly secular software error was thus twisted to fuel fears that there was a grand conspiracy targeted at Hindus of Gujarat.

With the election results now in, no one in the BJP is even talking about the controversy any longer. And no one seems particularly keen about addressing the basic issues that the Ahmedabad voter roll experience has highlighted.

Enumerators on the ground are often less than enthusiastic about house-to-house survey duties, and there is no mechanism through which the data gathered can be audited for accuracy. The interface between voters and local election authorities, too, is far from satisfactory, and few people seem aware of where they can go to check if their names have been included and where they need to go to in order to have complaints registered.

Unless these issues are addressed, the controversy will have served no useful purpose, except to illustrate once again how ugly the BJP's campaign in Gujarat has been, and how willing the party has been to prey on Hindu communal insecurity and anxiety.

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