The Election Commission of India (ECI) was caught in a tight spot over its decision to carry out repoll on 38 polling stations at Srinagar's parliamentary seat on Thursday, even when complete boycott was witnessed at 100 other polling booths.
The Commission also deferred the bypoll to Anantnag parliamentary constituency to 25 May, stating that the situation is "not conducive to the holding of free and fair pole in the constituency on 12 April, as scheduled".
Opposition parties National Conference (NC) and Congress are taking a swipe at ECI, charging the Commission of helping out the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate on the Srinagar seat, where the margin of victory could be very thin. ECI also said that any decision to order repoll for the third time, in case of another disruption of polling, could be taken only on Thursday.
Jammu and Kashmir’s chief electoral officer (CEO), Shant Manu, said that the decision to go for repoll was based on a report received from the returning officer (RO) that the elections couldn’t be held at the polling stations. Another boycott and disruptions at polling stations would ECI's role in holding elections under the scanner.
A senior government official said that in the wake of the abysmal voter turnout seen in Srinagar, with the possibility of the winning margin being thin, the decision to hold the repoll would only fuel the controversy. The Commission postponed the elections on the Anantnag seat to avert violence, but surprisingly decided to go ahead with repoll on areas which saw polling staff being locked up and civilians taking to the streets, in favour of boycotting the polls.
"At 32 polling stations, electronic voting machines (EVMs) were either damaged or missing; while at five other polling stations, the Presiding Officers reported that voting was disrupted. At 100 other polling booths, we recorded zero percentage of votes... but the people had boycotted the elections there and we couldn’t have done anything," the official said. Manu said that it was not conventional to order a repoll for the third time, but added that any decision could be taken only on Thursday.
NC and Congress have levelled accusations against the Commission, saying that it stands discredited as it was going by the opinion of the ruling PDP-BJP government over holding the elections. Former chief minister and NC working president, Omar Abdullah, questioned the need for conducting the repoll. Omar said that at a time when the conditions were not conducive for polls on the Anantnag parliamentary seat, it made no sense to go for repoll in areas which were affected by violence during the bypolls held on 9 April.
Both NC and Congress had sought that the Anantnag polls shouldn’t be postponed. Congress state president and the party's candidate for the Anantnag seat, GA Mir, threatened to pull out from the contest, saying that in the wake of a breakdown of Constitutional machinery in the state, governor's rule should be imposed.
"The ECI went by the opinion of the PDP alone. We had sought that the polls be deferred earlier, but our requests were not heeded by the Commission. Now, when we asked for holding the elections on time, our opinion was rejected. This is only to help the ruling alliance," said Mir.
He added that if the ECI was fearing the loss of lives, it must guarantee that there would be no violence during the elections in May. "Can ECI assure us that there will no violence or voting percentage will be high when elections are held in May," added Mir.
Earlier, both the PDP and Congress had withdrawn from the Anantnag campaign on Friday in protest against the Srinagar violence, in which eight people lost their lives. Tassaduq Mufti, brother of state chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who was the party candidate for the polls on the Anantnag seat, called upon ECI to defer the polls.
PDP chief spokesman Mehboob Beg, however, justified the deferring of elections. "Those who were killed are our own people and we couldn’t have gone to polls under these conditions. We asked ECI to defer the polls earlier but the Commission is an independent body and can’t be questioned about its decisions."
He said that the PDP, during its meeting with the ECI earlier, had asked the Commission to consider the unrest in the Valley, as the conditions were not conducive to hold the polls in the wake of civilian killings after the unrest last year – which was triggered by the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.
"Budgam had been the most peaceful area and there was violence even there. Charar-i-Sharief, where the people usually vote in good numbers was also boycotted. Anantnag remained the epicentre of the protests in 2016, and when the polling percentage remained as low as 7 percent in Srinagar, it was prudent to defer the elections," Beg said.
In South Kashmir, where Tassaduq was pitted against Mir, a subdued political campaign was witnessed in the run up to the elections. A PDP rally was attacked earlier at Kulgam, whee three people sustained injuries.
It was only in the areas which had not seen strong protests in 2016 where campaigning was carried out by the political parties. Government forces engaged in encounters with militants, while the campaigning was still on. The Anantnag bypoll is now due for over nine months, since Mehbooba resigned from the seat and got elected as an MLA from the Anantnag Assembly segment.
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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2017 17:28:08 IST