CHIEF Election Commissioner (CEC) B.B. Tandon travelled to various parts of Bihar on November 9 on an "inspection tour". He used the opportunity to counter the allegations of highhandedness and partiality raised against the Election Commission (E.C.) - particularly against K.J. Rao, the E.C.'s adviser in the State - by the leaders of the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). After the day-long tour, he told mediapersons in Patna that the allegations were baseless and were part of a design. Tandon did not elaborate what he meant by "design", but said that the E.C. would not be deterred by the allegations and would carry out its tasks and responsibilities.
Interestingly, some of the new directives issued by the CEC for the last phases of polling were directly related to the allegations made by the RJD and the Congress. In fact, they are favourable responses to the points made by the leaders of the two parties in their representation to the E.C. The E.C. said that the Central paramilitary forces deployed on election duty would not be responsible for checking voter identity cards. The leaders of the two parties had pointed out that "aggressive checking" by Central paramilitary force personnel intimidated large sections of voters. The CEC directed that burqa-clad Muslim women not be frisked by male personnel of the Central paramilitary forces. Women personnel would be employed in areas dominated by the Muslim community, and in places where women personnel were not available anganwadi sevikas (female employees of local child care centres) would be put into service.
The directives were immediately interpreted by a section of the RJD-Congress leadership as a vindication, albeit indirect, of their charges against the E.C.'s style of functioning in Bihar. "We were repeatedly pointing out that the manner in which the Central paramilitary forces have been used in Bihar this time has intimidated a large number of voters, especially of the minority community. E.C. officials have denied the charge repeatedly and yet the CEC's new directives actually point towards that fact," said Sivanand Tiwari, a senior RJD leader. However, Tiwari added, it remained to be seen how far the directives would be implemented on the ground. And unless proper implementation was ensured, he said, the orders would have no meaning. E.C. officials in Bihar refused to accept Tiwari's contention and maintained that the CEC's directives only underlined the E.C.'s overall commitment to ensure free and fair polls.
WHERE these charges and rebuttals, which have created a climate of antagonism between the constitutional institution and one of the major players in Bihar's electoral arena, would ultimately lead is not clear. What is, however, clear is that the E.C.'s conduct has become a significant factor in the current polls. Never before has the institution come into such sharp focus in an election in the State.
The E.C.'s conduct, its impact and the responses it has generated fall into positive and negative categories. At the time of going to press, the E.C. had ensured relative peace during the first two phases of polling spread across nearly 130 constituencies. Violent clashes between political, social and caste groups, a regular characteristic of elections in Bihar for many decades, were few and far between this time round. The claim of the E.C. and political parties that have supported its conduct - the Janata Dal (United), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) - is that this by itself has contributed in a big way to make the current elections free and fair.
Importantly, the current elections witnessed an unprecedented deployment of security forces. In the first two phases, approximately 600 companies of Central paramilitary forces were deployed. As many as 90,000 and 1,50,000 security force personnel were on duty in the first and second phases respectively. Around 1,50,000 personnel are expected to be deployed in the remaining phases too.
However, another stream of opinion in Bihar holds that the E.C. has only brought about a semblance of peace through the massive deployment of Central paramilitary forces who have intimidated large segments of the population. They point out that the current "peaceful" polls do not signify the establishment of real peace in Bihar's polity, which is polarised on caste lines. Those who argue on these lines include veteran political analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi, who says that "an illusory peace seems to have been thrust upon the people of Bihar by excessive use of security forces, who have no understanding of local conditions or the needs and aspirations of the local people". According to him, if the current polls really reflected the establishment of a peaceful election process, the polling percentage could not have dropped as dramatically as it did during the first two phases. Tiwari said that the intimidation created by the massive deployment of Central paramilitary forces mainly affected historically oppressed social groups such as Dalits, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the minorities.
On the other hand, parties such as the Janata Dal (United), the BJP and the CPI (M-L) point out that the deployment of Central paramilitary forces prevented rigging and bogus voting by the RJD. Deepankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI (M-L), pointed out that the RJD had no right to claim the high moral ground when its ranks were filled by "known criminals" and absconders from law such as Shahbuddin and Jai Prakash Yadav.
The fear of the Central paramilitary forces was palpable in several villages across the State during the two phases of polling. In Pakauli village in Raghopur constituency - from where former Chief Minister Rabri Devi is seeking election - of Vaishali district, a Border Security Force (BSF) soldier shot dead 25-year-old Santosh Singh who allegedly did not heed a call to stop. Santosh was walking towards his house after a bath in the Ganga and was carrying some prayer materials and a consecrated fruit (prasad) when he passed the school building that has been converted into a BSF camp. The BSF soldier, apparently, thought that Santosh was a "booth-grabber" carrying a bomb. Importantly, there was no polling booth near the school.
According to Santosh's brother, Anil Kumar Singh, the incident highlighted the manner in which the Central paramilitary forces were operating. He said: "From the moment they started camping here, three weeks before the polling, the entire village was perceived as an enemy by these people. They would not listen to any of our suggestions or complaints, but merely forced us to comply with whatever they wanted to do. This overbearing attitude was aggravated by the fact that a lot of soldiers were drunk during the day." Across polling stations in several districts such as Vaishali and Munger, Central paramilitary personnel on duty reportedly manhandled voters without any provocation and in several places the personnel were found drunk.
Meanwhile, in many places in districts such as Muzzaffar Nagar, the E.C.'s initiatives, including the deployment of Central paramilitary forces, have been appreciated by voters. The general response in Kolhua village, especially from its Dalit community, was that the E.C.'s initiatives had created a climate where they could vote freely.
THE RJD-Congress combine has raised the charge that the personal conduct of E.C. adviser K.J. Rao is anti-Muslim. K.J. Rao visited Kabirpur, a village on the outskirts of Bhagalpur town, in the last week of October and early November and allegedly described the Muslim-dominated region as "Mini Pakistan". The E.C. later declared the booths in the village "super-sensitive". Incidentally, the booths here do not have a history of violence or malpractices.
While the political class of the State and even the people of the locality are divided over whether the E.C. adviser actually made such a remark, the fact is that around 2,800 Muslim voters of the area, the majority of them literate, did not cast their votes in the polling that followed K.J. Rao's visit. While a section of people said they did not vote in protest against his comments and the later act of classifying the booths as "sensitive", others said they boycotted because the E.C. and the district and local administrations had not heeded their request to shift the location of some polling booths closer to the village. The latter demanded that repolling be held in these booths.
Some people in Kabirpur alleged that once they made bold to talk about K.J. Rao's remarks on television, a group of police and Central paramilitary force personnel "threatened them with dire consequences". Both the local police and the Central paramilitary force officials denied this. The E.C. too has denied all the allegations related to Kabirpur. It also refused to conduct re-polling in some booths. The E.C.'s argument was that it "would set a bad precedent".
There is also the complaint that some of the initiatives of the E.C. smack of a caste Hindu bias. The charge is raised on the basis of the transfer of officials such as District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police. In the majority of the cases, Dalit, OBC and Muslim officials have been replaced with their caste-Hindu colleagues. Some of the transferred officials described the action as unjust and made bold to question the E.C. action within the bureaucracy.
The case of Ramshobit Paswan, the District Magistrate of Nalanda who was transferred, is a case in point. He was moved out on the grounds that there was tardy progress in the distribution of electoral photo identity cards under his leadership. However, it was pointed out that as many as eight other District Magistrates had poorer records in distributing the cards. Ramshobit Paswan had completed barely four months in office when he was moved out.
According to Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, if the Nalanda District Magistrate was punishable, the other eight also deserved the same treatment. Digvijay Singh said that it needed to be looked into why the E.C. practised double standards. E.C. officials refused to respond to specific queries on discrimination. When the query was posed to Tandon, he replied that all transfers were carried out considering the experience and seniority of officials.