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Lok Sabha Election 2019: Understanding role of returning officer, the most important gear in our poll machinery

When we talk about elections and its management in India, one term which draws our attention is 'returning officer'. Most recently, the term was in headlines when three BJP candidates won in Arunachal Pradesh even without their constituencies going to the poll as the returning officer rejected the nominations of the other contesting candidates citing discrepancies in their nomination papers. Given the fact that India has at least 15 million first time voters, this article aims to make the voters aware about one of the most important officials in the election machinery.

The post of the 'returning officer' derives its name from their key responsibility, that is to conduct the election in a constituency and return an elected candidate. The returning officer is responsible for overseeing the election in one/two constituency/ies as directed by the Election Commission of India.

Under Section 21 and 22 of the Representation of People Act 1951 the Election Commission of India appoints the returning officer and assistant returning officer for a constituency in consultation with the state governments/ Union Territories as the case may be.

Every constituency in the country has its own returning officer and the territorial extent of the constituency over which he/she exerts jurisdiction is clearly defined by the Election Commission.

 Lok Sabha Election 2019: Understanding role of returning officer, the most important gear in our poll machinery

Representational image. PTI

A returning officer is responsible for every aspect of election in a constituency. Their foremost responsibility, as mandated by the Representation of People Act 1951, is to ensure free and fair elections in the constituency. This means that from filing of nominations by the candidates to counting of votes should be managed in an unbiased and unprejudiced way. He/she is also vested with the responsibility of training the polling personnel in all aspects including the use of EVMs with the Voters Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPATs). The returning officer is also entrusted with the task of allotting symbols to the contesting candidates, preparing the list of candidates, preparing the EVMs and VVPATs for the election as well as appointing the polling staff and defining the work. Apart from this there are various other managerial tasks which are handled by the returning officer to ensure a smooth and fair election process.

However, such responsibility also comes with its drawbacks.

Many a times questions have been raised on the conduct of the returning officers and their credentials, especially when we talk about their role in scrutinising the nomination forms. One such recent case took place in 2017 in Tamil Nadu where a by-election was to be conducted in the RK Nagar constituency. Vishal an actor by profession had filed his nomination from RK Nagar( Tamil Nadu) constituency, the seat left vacant after the death of former state chief minister Jayalalitha. The returning officer, while scrutinizing the nomination papers under Chapter I Section 36 of the Representation of People Act 1951 rejected the nomination. According to the provisions of the Act the candidature of an Independent candidate must be proposed by 10 persons residing in the constituency from where the candidate is filling the nomination papers. Valusamy, the returning officer while scrutinising the nomination found out that two signatures were forged, thus he rejected the nomination leading to a major controversy with the returning officer even being called the agent of the ruling party.

However, the issue was later resolved and actor Vishal's nomination was accepted when the matter was investigated further. However this is only one such incident in the string of incidents as in every major election questions are raised on the process of scrutiny.

Initially, returning officer was the final authority on deciding whether the nomination will be accepted or not as per Section 33(4) of Chapter I of Representation of Peoples Act 1951. Only a special tribunal had the power to overrule his decision and to hear the appeal of a candidate as mandated under A 329(b), which was also reiterated by the Madras High Court in Poonuswami case (1952), a landmark judgment which was even used by the Supreme Court on various occasions.

However, after the case of Vishnu Kamath vs Ahmed Isheque, another landmark case in which the Supreme Court held that A 329(b) of the Indian Constitution, which provided that election petitions can only be heard by special tribunals only. And once the proceedings were initiated the requirements of the A 329(b) were met and trial by the election tribunal was subject to general law under which the petition could be taken up by the higher authority in the hierarchy of jurisprudence.

However, in order to avoid dual jurisdiction the Election Commission recommended that high courts should be given the direct authority to adjudicate upon these matters. Eventually, Section 80-A was incorporated by an amendment into the Representation of People Act by the Parliament in 1966 which established high courts as the authority for deciding upon election petitions.

The returning officers are also often blamed when there are technical and managerial problems during elections. Recently, a controversy broke out in Madhya Pradesh over late arrival of EVMs to the collection centre in Sagar; the polling machines were delayed by as many as two days after the polling ended. The Opposition led a protest against the ruling BJP and EC officials, demanding an investigation into the delay.

The opposition blamed the BJP for the act and accused it of manipulating the results. However the Chief Electoral Commissioner of Madhya Pradesh later came out and told that these were the ‘reserved’ machines which were to be used only in case of a technical snag. Notwithstanding this, the Election Commission responded strictly on the matter and removed the Returning Officer of the Khurai Assembly seat of Madhya Pradesh.

Thus the Returning Officer has one of the most prominent roles in elections. He/she is the one who, by ensuring fairness and impartiality of polls, keeps faith of the people in the democratic process. He/she is also duty bound under the Representation of People Act to think of innovative ways to make the whole process of election management even more democratic and fair. So find out who is the Returning Officer of your constituency and what is he/she doing for making the election more transparent and just in your constituency.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Apr 04, 2019 16:17:12 IST

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