Much before the Lok Sabha election, the Opposition parties in Kerala had expressed fear of widespread attempt by ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) to rig the election. Much of this fear is coming true, with evidence of various kinds of election malpractices emerging after the election.
The latest is the official confirmation of foul play in the distribution of postal ballots to police officials deployed for election duty outside their constituencies. The allegation was that the CPM-backed Kerala Police Association (KPA) had en masse collected postal ballots to be distributed to the policemen to vote in favour of the ruling front candidates during the election on 23 April across the state.
The fraud came to light when an audio clip of a former KPA leader urging fellow men to collect the postal ballots of the cops surfaced on social media last week. The police postal ballots constitute a significant number of 25,000 votes and can influence the result in a few constituencies where the victory margin is usually low.
A preliminary investigation by state intelligence chief Vinod Kumar found that at least three members of the police constabulary had tried to gather the postal ballots from colleagues to help the LDF. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala alleged that the KPA had collected postal ballots of those owing allegiance to other parties also by adopting arm-twisting tactics such as threats of transfer.
State Director General of Police Loknath Behra, who initially maintained everything was hunky dory, was forced to act only after Chief Electoral Officer Teekaram Meena took a tough stand. On his direction, he suspended one of the three officials and has directed the Crime Branch to conduct a comprehensive investigation to find out the extent of the fraud.
Congress, which leads the Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), is not satisfied by the CB probe. Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president Mullappally Ramachandran has termed the probe by a state agency a part of an attempt by the police chief to save the higher ups involved in the manipulation and demanded a judicial inquiry.
He said that the police chief was trying to limit the probe to a few policemen in the lower ranks by handing over the investigation to the Crime Branch.
“It is difficult to believe that junior officers themselves have committed this serious fraud. They have certainly acted on the direction of higher ups. The CB will not dare to touch them,” Mullappally said while stressing the need for a probe by an independent agency.
Congress leaders believe that the top brass themselves had prepared the ground for the intervention of the association in the postal ballots by changing the previous system, in which the policemen on poll duty were allowed to collect the ballot papers themselves and return them after casting their vote to the polling officer directly in sealed covers. However, this time, the DGP routed the process through nodal officers appointed by him.
The Opposition leader had pointed out the possibility for manipulation in the new arrangement before the polls and asked the police chief to revert to the old system. When his plea was ignored, the Opposition had taken up the issue with the Election Commission, who directed the DGP to ensure that the system was not misused.
Behra had promised a fair deal. The promise, however, turned out to be empty. The UDF has now demanded cancellation of the postal votes of all policemen and a fresh voting. The CEO is awaiting the final investigation report to take a decision on the demand. He has asked the DGP to submit the report by 15 May so that he can order a fresh polling if required before the counting of votes on 23 May.
But the CEO’s job does not end here. Meena is yet to take a call on the complaint by a section of the civil officials who were deputed on poll duty that they were denied postal ballots despite repeated reminders. The officials have formed a group to push the case.
He has also not taken cognizance of the Congress' charge regarding a conspiracy hatched by the CPM in collusion with government officials to manipulate the voters’ list. AICC general secretary and former chief minister Oommen Chandy has alleged that the CPM had tried to manipulate the mandate by removing at least 10 lakh voters favouring the UDF.
Chandy said that the CPM-led government had facilitated the malpractice much before the declaration of the elections by using officials owing allegiance to the ruling front. He has pointed out the sharp decline in the number of voters between the 2016 Assembly polls and 2019 Lok Sabha election to substantiate his allegation.
“The Election Commission had registered 5.5 lakh new voters belonging to 18-19 age group after 2018 alone. However, the final voters' list showed an increase of only 1.32 lakh voters. The growth from the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to 2016 Assembly elections was 17.5 lakh. This shows that the growth of voters in this election is not proportionate as found in previous elections,” said Chandy.
He said that this anomaly was because of removal of pro-UDF voters from the electoral list throughout the state. “The name of a person from the voters' list can be removed only with his consent, but in this case, it was done without following the due procedure,” he added.
The former chief minister has demanded a high-level probe into the manipulation and action against the concerned officials. The party candidates in some constituencies had also alleged an attempt by the CPM to garner these votes by getting fake voter ID cards issued to the party supporters.
The Congress candidate in Attingal had alleged before the election that more than 1.12 lakh people in his constituency had received more than one voter ID card. He had even presented copies of the voters’ list from various booths in the constituency, in which multiple entries with different election ID numbers were included to the Election Commission and the district collector.
Cases of electoral malpractices started tumbling out after a TV channel telecast webcasting footage of bogus voting by CPM workers in a booth at Pilathara under the Kasargod constituency. While cases have been registered against seven persons, including three UDF leaders who have cast bogus votes on the basis of the webcasting footage, several other cases of bogus voting in booths where there were no web cameras are still being verified.
Though cases of bogus voting were reported in previous elections, this is perhaps the first time that the state is witnessing a coordinated attempt to rig the election on a massive scale. If the Election Commission does not address the complaints, the state is going to see a flurry of election cases after the counting of votes.
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Updated Date: May 11, 2019 21:25:56 IST