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Questions over electoral rolls

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

ON January 15, the Election Commission (E.C.) ordered the postponement of byelections in the Saidapet and Vaniyambadi Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu but allowed the byelection in Andipatti, from where All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary Jayalalithaa is seeking election, to be held on February 21 as scheduled. The E.C.'s decision followed its direction to the Electoral Registration Officers (ERO) of Saidapet and Vaniyambadi not to publish the final electoral rolls. The E.C. apparently found substance in allegations of large-scale deletions from and additions to the voters' lists in these two constituencies. It, however, did not find any basis for similar allegations with regard to Andipatti.

'Vaigai' Sekar, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) candidate in Andipatti, has challenged the decision in the Delhi High Court and sought the deferment of the polls in that constituency until the names of 17,000 alleged bogus voters are removed from the electoral rolls. He argued that as the results of the Andipatti byelection could influence voters in the other constituencies, in order to ensure free and fair elections the polls should be held simultaneously. The E.C., and Jayalalithaa, who got herself impleaded in the case, have drawn the attention of the court to Article 329 (b) of the Constitution which bars any interference in the matter once the process of holding an election begins.

The E.C.'s move is significant in that this is the first instance ever of it entertaining complaints of irregularities after the announcement of the election schedule, and also using an inquiry report as the basis of a decision to conduct or defer elections. The purity of electoral rolls has a direct and immediate bearing on the quality of elections and governance, and the E.C. has a seminal responsibility in ensuring that the process of enrolling voters is free from aberrations.

The E.C.'s decision followed a report submitted by its secretary K.J. Rao, who visited the three constituencies to inquire into complaints regarding irregularities in the enrolment of voters. Although the complaints came up after an intensive special revision of the electoral rolls was completed, the E.C. accorded priority to addressing them as they were made on the eve of the elections.

K.J. Rao's report is important for the methodology it adopted to verify the genuineness of the complaints. The main allegation in the case of Saidapet was that a large number of applications for enrolment (Form-6) were received after the deadline for filing claims and objections, that is, December 31, 2001, and that these applications were collected by officials of the Chennai Corporation from the home of one of the functionaries of a political party. K.J. Rao was told by the ERO that only 1,588 applications were received up to December 30, 2001, and that the remaining 19,000-odd applications were received on December 31, 2001.

K.J. Rao thus found that the Commissioner received the forms in bulk on December 31, and directed the ERO to get them verified. This, according to him, was against the E.C.'s guideline that applications be not received in bulk and that they be received only by the ERO or officers designated by him.

"The Commissioner, Corporation of Chennai should not have, therefore, accepted the claim applications in bulk, even though he is the coordinator for the revision exercise. Further, he should not have directed the ERO to verify the claim applications received in bulk. This amounts to interference with the duties assigned to the ERO under the statute. The Commissioner, Chennai Corporation, has thus exceeded his brief," K.J. Rao said in his report.

K.J. Rao also found that figures relating to the number of claim applications received by the designated officers did not tally with the ERO's records. He made random visits to a few houses to find out whether the claim applications had been verified properly and whether the enumeration was done as per the E.C.'s guidelines. K.J. Rao found that in some cases signatures of the applicants were forged, and in some others the contents were untrue. He also discovered that enumerators had not visited areas from where complaints of non-enrolment were received.

In Vaniyambadi, too, K.J. Rao found that the names of a large number of residents in areas where the enumerators did not visit were deleted from the rolls. He concluded that large-scale deletion of names without following prescribed procedures and without notice to the affected persons, was a serious lapse. Lack of supervision by Assistant EROs and the ERO, who did not check the work of the enumerators, was responsible for this lapse, he said in his report. However, K.J. Rao himself visited only one street from where there were complaints of large-scale deletion of names.

In Andipatti, K.J. Rao found that the number of applications accepted for inclusion was 5,402. He visited the Atthankaraipatti and Rajendranagar villages that were mentioned in the DMK's complaint. Random checks of more than 20 houses there in the presence of representatives of the DMK and the AIADMK convinced K.J. Rao that there were no bogus names in the list.

LOK SATTA, a Hyderabad-based non-governmental organisation, has found that the E.C.'s broad guidelines regarding the likely increase in population and voter strength were used as an excuse by many local officials to reject applications for inclusion of names on flimsy grounds. As there was no serious effort to delete ineligible names, the officials tended to limit new additions correspondingly, so that the voter strength in the area did not exceed the total determined.

One post-election survey conducted by Lok Satta in Hyderabad in 1999 to check the authenticity of the votes cast revealed several bogus names and also names of persons who were no longer alive, whom the official lists had claimed had indeed voted. This survey was conducted in an area where peaceful polling was reported. Observers say that there is indeed a case to reform and simplify the enrolment process in order to enlist the active participation of voters. The E.C.'s random survey to verify complaints may not be the answer to the distortions in electoral rolls.

Observers thus wonder whether the E.C. could use the Tamil Nadu precedent and defer polls, wherever it is shown beyond doubt that enumerators did not make door-to-door visits to enrol all eligible voters. However, the E.C. may not find it feasible to order similar inquiries on the basis of such complaints elsewhere, especially during general elections.