NEW DELHI: Even before the announcement of polls on February 26, the Election Commission had started receiving letters from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee expressing misgivings about electronic voting machines (EVMs) and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) and even demanding a third-party audit of the results.
Three separate letters were written by Banerjee on February 6, February 24 and March 2, demanding, among other things, independent third-party audit of results with findings to be made public, 100% tallying of EVM count with VVPAT slips and ordering repoll in the event of a mismatch; and increasing display time of VVPAT slips from the current 7 seconds to 15 seconds and also allowing the voter to cancel his/her vote in case of any discrepancy. “With the fierce rivalry of opposition political parties looking to win by hook or crook…tampering of EVMs and VVPATs is not unlikely in West Bengal assembly,” she had noted while suggesting these “solutions”.
The poll panel, in its response to each of her letters, sought to dispel doubts regarding tamper-proof nature of EVMs and cited the Supreme Court ruling capping matching of EVM count and VVPAT trail at 5 polling stations per assembly constituency, to rule out any change.
On Sunday, with the Trinamool Congress recording an impressive win in West Bengal, there were few murmurs about the reliability of EVM or VVPAT. EC officials said that the results had vindicated not only the infallibility of EVMs, but also its decision to go in for elaborate security arrangements – including the deployment of a huge number of Central forces, also a reason why the poll in West Bengal was staggered over eight phases. “Thanks to the confidence building measures, electors could come out in huge numbers and vote fearlessly,” an officer told TOI. “The huge mandate for TMC shows that this facilitation was as much for its voters as for those of any other party,” he added.
Scheduling the polls, particularly in West Bengal was not an easy task for EC. Political violence had marred the 2018 panchayat polls, when 23 people were killed and 266 injured, as well as 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when 693 incidents were reported. Even during June-December 2019, 852 incidents of political violence were recorded, followed by 663 incidents in 2020.
The Commission ensured 100% deployment of Central forces at all booths and made Central forces nodal officer part of all deployment decisions. EC reviewed pending cases of non-bailable warrants against individuals and history sheeters and directed the police brass to execute them. Further, observers were effectively involved this time in verification of vulnerability assessment and identification of miscreants and potential trouble mongers by collecting worry list from political parties.
EC now claims that its measures led to reduction in poll-day incidents from 170 in 2016 to 126 this time. There was a drastic reduction in the cases of bombings in the state due to record seizure of 594 bombs during this election as compared to 167 bombs seized in 2016.
EC took the most flak for not stopping huge rallies and public meetings despite Covid concerns. EC officials, however, reject this criticism, saying that even before the Covid cases surged across the country, it had started to place curbs on campaigning and then progressively intensified them.
Even though Madras HC has slammed EC over failure to enforce Covid norms, EC officials said regulating gatherings and enforcing Covid guidelines was the remit of state disaster management authority under the Disaster Management Act 2005. “At no occasion, the EC takes over the task of SDMA,” said an EC functionary.
On April 9, EC had warned parties that it would ban public meetings where Covid norms were flouted; on April 16, it banned night-time campaign and extended silence period; on April 21 it wrote to the parties that rallies of Covid norm defaulters would be cancelled (April 21) and finally on April 22, it banned road shows and capped attendance at rallies to 500 persons.
In pursuance to these orders, 178 show cause notices were issued to various political parties, 102 cases lodged and 448 political rallies and meetings cancelled across the states.