The Congress has cited proceedings in a poll-related case in Gujarat High Court to alert the nation and the Election Commission to the peril of manipulation of results by pliable polling officers.
The case relates to the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections in which the Congress candidate from Dholka filed a petition in the high court alleging that the BJP nominee was unfairly declared winner in violation of procedures. Congress candidate Ashwin Rathore lost by 327 votes to the BJP’s Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, a senior minister in the state government.
The case took a curious turn when returning officer Dhaval Jani, a Gujarat government officer, confessed in court on Tuesday that he had not followed due process.
Expressing shock at the manipulation, Justice Paresh Upadhyay made Jani, Election Commission observer Vinita Bohra, a Rajasthan-cadre IAS officer, and the poll panel respondents in the case.
“Polling officers are usually made witness in election-related cases but this is the first time that they are in the respondent category,” Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said.
Singhvi and another Congress spokesperson, Shaktisinh Gohil, narrated at a media conference what had happened in Gujarat.
“As the counting progressed in 2017, the margin between Chudasama, who is a very senior BJP leader, and Ashwin narrowed. The Election Commission handbook clearly lays down that the postal ballots must be counted before the last two rounds of EVM counting. But the returning officer, who was frequently talking to somebody on phone, which itself is illegal, finished the EVM counting first before taking up the postal ballots,” Singhvi said.
Gohil took over, saying: “There were 1,356 postal ballots. The returning officer had an idea of the close contest and he rejected 429 postal ballot votes to declare the BJP candidate victorious by 327 votes. Vinita Bohra, who has to independently oversee the process and certify that due process was followed, approved the result. Our candidate demanded recounting and re-verification of postal ballots in writing but it was not accepted.”
Gohil said the Election Commission rules clearly state that if the margin of victory is less than the rejected votes, there shall be automatic recounting and re-verification. Recounting has to be done without asking, it is mandatory.
The 2017 Gujarat case should act as a warning for polling officers in the entire country as they will be used by the BJP for its own purposes and later dumped to face legal proceedings, the Congress claimed. The Election Commission should also take note of how pliable officers can subvert people’s choices, the Congress leaders said.
The court asked the returning officer whether the postal ballots should have been counted before the EVM counting was over, to which Jani replied in the affirmative. Asked if he followed the procedure, Jani said “no”.
When he was shown the video clipping of him talking on a mobile phone, Jani admitted that doing so inside the counting centre was illegal. Only the Election Commission observer, Bohra in this case, is allowed to carry a cellphone inside the centre.
The Congress warned the Election Commission against a “larger conspiracy” to subvert the people’s mandate. “This case has national implications. If polling officers behave in this manner, the entire concept of level playing field is violated,” Singhvi said.