Looking back: Who will ‘observe’ the Observers deputed by the Election Commission?
Now that another Assembly election is around the corner in Bihar, who will ‘observe’ the Observers?
Election Commission of India appoints observers to ensure free and fair elections. These observers acquired extra muscle during the tenure of TN Seshan as the Election Commissioner (those days there were only one Commissioner in the ECI) and basked in the benign and adulatory glare of the media. Some of them continue to indulge in flexing muscles.
In a well publicised incident reported in the nineties, an Observer appointed for the CHATRA Parliamentary constituency of undivided Bihar (now in Jharkhand) went to CHAPRA instead. He remained there for several days without noticing the faux pas. The blunder was revealed only after the arrival of the designated Observer for Chapra.
In another instance that came to light, blatant misuse of STD facility at Gaya Circuit House by one of the Observers was reported, during the same Parliamentary election. The CDR printout running into more than 30 A4 size pages was subsequently forwarded to the Election Commission. This was before the cell phones appeared on the scene and displaced the traditional, wired telephone set. The printout revealed that almost all the STD calls were made to friends and relatives of the observer living in different parts of the country. Luckily the Circuit House did not have ISD facility.
The then Dhanbad DC had let another cat out of the bag by forwarding the liquor Bill of one of the Observers to the Election Commission. Another Observer wanted the then Gaya DM Rajiv Gauba to immediately install an Air Conditioner in his room and when the DM expressed his helplessness on account of non-availability of Air Conditioners at short notice, the Observer retorted by saying that he wanted the AC installed even if “it had to be procured from the other side of the world”.
That many of the Election Observers spend a substantial part of their stay in looking for land, property and suitable matches for their own and their friends’ ‘eligible and marriageable’ children and conducting their personal business is also fairly well-known.
Local officials deputed to assist the Observers would be running errands, getting local savouries packed or hunting for souvenirs they could take away.
Of course, Observers are also human and many of these activities can be described as innocuous or even innocent. But it is equally true that the more serious breaches rarely come to light. That the Election Commission of India is aware of the shenanigans of the Observers and often takes a dim view of their conduct was clear when the then Advisor to the Election Commission KJ Rao cautioned Observers against ‘favouritism, lethargy and misuse of power’.
Most Observers being IAS officers and picked up from other cadres are expected to be neutral. But while their neutrality is something that is for the ECI to vouch for, often their ignorance of local conditions, personalities and even local dialect come in the way of efficacy.
Over the years, the number of Observers has increased, adding to the overall cost of conducting elections. But an insider or a research scholar will have to do a proper study of their role.
With the Assembly election coming up in Bihar, the media might find it useful to examine their movement and role.
(The author is a veteran commentator and journalist based in Gaya. This is excerpted from a memoir he is writing)