Row over electoral rolls

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

The issue of the Election Commission's disciplinary authority over district-level officials drafted for election-related work comes to the fore again - this time in Madhya Pradesh.

in Bhopal

CONFRONTATIONS with Chief Ministers and State governments are nothing new for the Election Commission of India (ECI). The latest round involves Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, with regard to six officials under whose charge erroneous electoral rolls were published. The ECI asked the Madhya Pradesh government to suspend these officials, but the State refused to do so and asked the ECI to file charge-sheets against the officials first.

It all started when the ECI began the exercise of revision of electoral rolls ahead of the Assembly elections to be held in Madhya Pradesh (along with Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi) in November. Soon, representations started pouring into its office from political parties, with details of how the exercise was not being conducted in a fair manner by the district-level officers. The ECI directed the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Madhya Pradesh to review the draft rolls for all districts.

It was soon revealed that the names of thousands of persons had not been included in the draft rolls. The CEO found large-scale duplication of entries, deletions that were yet to be carried out and many printing errors, particularly in the case of 41 Assembly constituencies spread over 16 districts. In some cases the draft rolls had been printed in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi.

After scrutiny, the ECI concluded that the District Election Officers (DEO) and Deputy District Election Officers (DDEO) of Rewa, Shahdol and Khargone districts had erred. The ECI wrote to the Madhya Pradesh government stating that these officers "did not show the diligence and application of mind in preparation of the electoral rolls'', and directing the government to suspend them and take other disciplinary action under the service rules. The ECI cited Section 13 CC of the Representation of the People Act, 1950, under which DEOs and DDEOs are deemed to be on deputation to the ECI and are subject to its control, superintendence and discipline.

However, while maintaining that he was willing to take action against the officials, Digvijay Singh said he could not suspend them until charge-sheets were filed against them. He asked the ECI to file these. On March 18, Digvijay Singh met Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) J.M. Lyngdoh in New Delhi. After the 30-minute meeting, Digvijay Singh said: "We are asking the State Chief Electoral Officer to file a charge-sheet. How can we suspend them even before a charge-sheet is filed?'' At the meeting he maintained that the controversy had arisen because of printing errors in the draft list, which was subjected to correction. Siding with the officials, he said that the ECI had taken a decision against them "without making a detailed inquiry''. Digvijay Singh emphasised that errors were found only in the computerised draft rolls and not in the manually prepared ones.

The issue of the ECI's authority to take disciplinary action against officials placed on deputation with it for election duty was first brought before the Supreme Court when T.N. Seshan was the CEC. In directing the State government to suspend certain officials, the ECI has relied on a Supreme Court order. The court's order on writ petition No. 606 of 1993 (Election Commission of India vs Union of India and Others) empowers the ECI to suspend an officer for insubordination or dereliction of duty; substitute such an officer by any other officer and return the substituted individual to the cadre to which he or she belongs with an appropriate report on his or her conduct and recommend to the competent authority the initiation of disciplinary action. The order states: "The Election Commission can make recommendations to the competent authority, for taking disciplinary action, for any act of subordination or dereliction of duty, while on election duty. Such recommendations shall be promptly acted upon by the disciplinary authority and action taken will be communicated to the Election Commission, within a period of six months from the date of the Election Commission's recommendations.''

By refusing to comply with the ECI's directive, the Madhya Pradesh government has placed a question mark over the Commission's authority over State government officials. An ECI official said: "In November 2000, after this order came out, the ECI sent a letter to all the State governments updating them on its powers. The Madhya Pradesh government remained silent on the issue. Its silence was seen as half-consent. Now it is bypassing its moral commitment to follow the contents of the letter.''

In Madhya Pradesh, the issue has been politicised by the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But it seems to have forgotten the less-than-amicable relations that the BJP had with Lyngdoh during the Gujarat Assembly elections last year; for the BJP, Lyngdoh is today a hero. The BJP's chief election campaigner in Madhya Pradesh, former Union Minister Uma Bharati, said: "Our fight is not against the officials. We hold the Chief Minister to be the real culprit. By saying that there was a printing error in the draft electoral rolls he is questioning the authority of the Election Commission.'' Playing down its confrontation with Lyngdoh in Gujarat, the party is now cheering him while saying that Digvijay Singh's game plan had been revealed. Uma Bharati said: "Even on Gujarat, I never condemned Lyngdoh. I think I was the only one in the BJP, even during the Gujarat elections, who said that the ECI's order must be followed.''

Perturbed over his being compared with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Digvijay Singh said: "There is no question of acting like Modi. He said demeaning things about the CEC. I will not get into a confrontation with the E.C. because I believe we can't have free elections without faith in the institution.''

The deadlock continues with the District Collectors concerned - Alka Upadhyaya of Khargone, Vinod Kumar of Rewa and Ashok Shah of Shahdol - having secured from the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) a stay against the directive from Nirvachan Sadan. On March 25, the ECI approached the CAT with a plea to vacate the stay granted to the three District Collectors, making clear its resolve to pursue the matter. The Commission, after obtaining legal opinion on the issue, decided that it would not issue charge-sheets against the officials. Explained an ECI official: "We are not filing charge-sheets because we could get bogged down in the very logistics. If you see our staff strength, we work with merely 25 Class A officials. How can we prepare a case against each and every official at the district level? It would include getting witnesses after going through the service rules of the State concerned.''

All eyes are now on the hearings of the CAT. On April 2, it confirmed the stay it had granted on the suspension of the officials and asked the ECI, the State government and the Union of India to file counter-applications. While for the ECI it is a question of its powers over officials working in the districts, for the Madhya Pradesh government it is a matter of protecting its own officials.

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