Herald View: Hello ECI, do explain the 1.07 crore extra votes

There are reports that several presiding officers have been refusing to fill up Form 17C or share it with polling agents while some have allegedly obtained polling agents' signatures on blank forms

Election Commission of India headquarters (photo: IANS)
Election Commission of India headquarters (photo: IANS)

Herald View

The Supreme Court of India is in recess for its annual summer vacation. It is expected, though, to hear a petition filed by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) challenging the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) refusal to share poll data, more specifically the number of total voters and actual votes polled in each booth and constituency.

There are reasons to believe that all is not kosher with this data. Not even simply because the ECI has gone against the established practice to declare it without any delay. The ECI did belatedly share polling percentages, but refused to share the data of total voters, which was routine till the previous Lok Sabha election in 2019.

As anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with math knows, voter turnout percentages cannot be calculated without absolute numbers of voters. So, the ECI either has booth and constituency-wise absolute numbers of voters, and won’t share them for reasons we haven’t yet heard, or it has cooked up the percentages. Smell a rat?

In reply to RTI applications seeking the data, the ECI has said people may approach the chief electoral officers in each state and collect the data. On another RTI application, the CEO of the Union territory of Puducherry responded by stating that the data would be uploaded after the elections were over. When a persistent journalist from New Delhi called up the CEO’s office in the UT, s/he was told that the CEO did not have the data.

At the end of polling, the presiding officer of every booth is required to record the data of the number of voters and the votes polled, in Form 17C. They are supposed to sign these forms and obtain the signatures of the polling agents of each party and candidate.

This is done to ensure that parties and their candidates know and confirm that on counting day, there’ll be no mismatch between the votes polled and the votes counted.

While defending its position in court, the ECI argued that since all polling agents already had their respective Form 17C, the candidates and parties knew the figures, in any case. The better organised political parties do indeed collect data from their polling agents and have a fair idea of the votes polled, but that does not free the ECI and its polling officers of their statutory obligations.

There are reports that several presiding officers have been refusing to fill up these forms or share it with polling agents while some have allegedly obtained the signatures of polling agents on blank forms. Even more important, when the ECI makes suspicious revisions in polling data, the legal remedies parties and their candidates may seek are limited while the elections are still on.

As the ECI affidavit in court (of 22 May) rather alarmingly points out, in one of seven objections to the ADR/ Common Cause plea: ‘Under Article 329(b) of the Constitution, judicial interference in the electoral process from the date of notification [of elections] till declaration of results is barred.’ In other words, the Election Commission of India is asking the Supreme Court of India to lay off.

At the time of writing, we were still waiting to see how the court may respond when it takes up the ADR/ Common Cause plea on Friday, 24 May, in light of the ECI affidavit. The current ECI seems to have decided that it serves the ruling party rather than the people of India. We have known this for a while, and it’s more or less written into the way Election Commissioners are now chosen—on partisan lines.

The current ECI’s bias has been all too obvious in the way that it has selectively applied the Model Code of Conduct, grabbing every half-chance to censure or serve notice on opposition leaders while winking at flagrant violations of the code by leaders of the ruling party, including the prime minister himself.

Given this suspicious trajectory, it’s nothing short of alarming that it should have taken the ECI 11 days to share the data of ‘votes polled’ for Phase 1 (held on 19 April), and then not even bother to explain the huge discrepancies between the figures for ‘votes polled’ on polling day and the final figures, shared after this inexplicable gap of 11 days.

Former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, who should know a thing or two about how elections are conducted, has said on record that polling data, in this digital age, is available to the ECI in a matter of minutes.

Exhibit B: at the end of Phase 4 (held on 13 May), when voting had concluded for 380 constituencies, the ECI’s polling data showed an increase of 1.07 crore votes in the final figures—an average increase per constituency of >28,000 votes . Effectively, that is 1.07 crore unaccounted-for votes! We should worry, even while we cling to the hope that the weakened guard rails of our democracy will somehow withstand this onslaught.  

Update: Finally, on Saturday, 25 May, the ECI did release absolute voter turnout numbers for the first five phases of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. But the questions regarding the unusual delay in sharing voting percentages and the ECI's total unwillingness to part with absolute numbers remain.

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