Suspected Trinamul supporters assault a protester who was blockading Garia railway station to seek immediate refunds and the arrest of those behind the Saradha scandal. The protester was part of an agitating group of depositors and agents of Saradha and other cash-collection firms. Picture by Bibhash Lodh
The Election Commission’s special observer has described polling in Bengal so far as “absolutely fair, free and peaceful”.
The following account is by a presiding officer of a booth in Nanoor in the Bolpur Lok Sabha constituency in Birbhum, the district that accounted for the maximum number of complaints of malpractice on polling day on Wednesday.
The officer describes how an audacious ruse was used with impunity to ensure that CPM supporters were accompanied by a group of youths who punched the “correct” button on behalf of the voters.
The officer did not want to be named for obvious reasons but said he decided to speak to this newspaper because “finally when I returned home after depositing the EVM and other papers to the collection centre, I wondered whether the polls were free and fair”.
As a poll officer with the experience of handling five elections, I know that some malpractice or the other is part and parcel of any election but my experience in Nanoor was an eye-opener.
I never knew that dark spectacles could be effective rigging devices until a group of voters, accompanied by a youth, entered the booth.
“Sir, all of them had cataract operations recently…. They can’t vote without my assistance. I need your consent to assist them,” the young man said.
The way the people wearing the dark shades walked in, I was sure that they did not have any medical problem. The way the young man spoke to me in the garb of requesting me, I also knew that he was in no mood for an argument. I knew I had to say “yes” as the two aged constables, one armed and the other unarmed, could not have saved me had I said “no”.
I looked towards the voters — four were there. One of them said: “We all underwent surgery in a camp.”
I remembered the faces of my ailing and aged parents and their dependence on me and said “yes”.
(According to rules, a disabled person can seek help from anybody he or she knows to help him or her to cast the vote. But if the presiding officer seeks proof, the voter has to produce a medical certificate to prove that he or she cannot vote alone.)
I had smilingly asked one voter wearing dark glasses whether he had a medical certificate. The man accompanying him smiled back and said: “Sir, poor villagers don’t keep medical reports with them. You must know that.”
I did not know what to say.
The first instance of malpractice emerged just when the mock poll started at 6am. I was waiting for the agents of other parties but the Trinamul agents (a party can engage three) said the BJP and the Congress did not find any agents and the CPM agents would not come.
“Why?” I had asked.
“They are hospitalised,” one of them said.
They were polite to a fault but the tone suggested that had I asked any more questions, I could also land up in hospital. I sensed that I had to keep them in good humour if the polls had to be completed.
“Have you beaten them up?” I asked with a smile because that was the only shield I had.
“No, sir, we had requested them not to come. They have agreed. They told us to inform you that they are ill and won’t come,” said one of the agents.
It was against that uncomfortable backdrop that I started the vote at 7am with three other polling officers. The micro-observer had also joined the booth by then.
Voting was smooth till 10am. After that, a group of youths entered the booth. Before I could say that they were not allowed inside the booth, one of them said: “Sir, we need your help.”
Asked to elaborate, he said; “We want to vote for the CPM voters in our village. We cannot allow them to vote on their own. At the same time, we can’t let their votes go waste as there are around 400 CPM voters in our village.”
I was dumbstruck. But I told them that it was not possible. I could not allow such a malpractice. The micro-observer also supported me.
But the group said — again very politely — that they would ensure that the polling officers did not face any trouble.
Soon, the “patients” started appearing in the booth. We had no option but to allow them in.
As far as I recall, I allowed the youths to vote for at least 200 voters who came wearing dark shades.
When we wrapped it up at 6pm, a total of 967 votes were cast out of 1,100-odd votes.
The youths, while we were boarding the vehicle sent to take us back, came to me and shook hands.
“Thank you, sir,” said one of them.
I also thanked them. I had to, because there was no trouble though only two constables were allotted to the booth located in Nanoor, a place known for violence during the polls.
I recall that the youths were really nice to us since we reached the booth. They had arranged dinner and lunch for us in a place where no hotel is located nearby. They were refusing to take money for the food but accepted after we forced them.
They were also really nice to me when I initially opposed their plan to accompany the voters wearing dark glasses.
Yes, it was peaceful. Undoubtedly.