Caught In the Act

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Tripura is the last bastion standing for the Left Front. The communists have been in power in the state since 1993 and won 50 of the 60 seats in last year’s Assembly polls. Every election sees an average turnout of 80 percent or more. The communists have always attributed it to the faith the people have in their rule, but the Opposition parties have usually alleged that the large turnout is due to rigging.

Last week, the allegation was seemingly vindicated when Agartala-based television channel News Vanguard aired footage of rigging in the Lok Sabha polls held on 7 April.

“We have always claimed that the Left Front has been misusing the machinery with the help of a section of poll officials and the police to rig the polls,” says Congress MLA and Leader of the Opposition Sudip Roy Barman. “That’s why we have been witnessing a huge poll percentage, particularly in the wee hours of polling.”

Tehelka has a copy of the visuals released by the news channel, which clearly shows unauthorised people inside the polling booth trying to “direct” the voters where to vote in the garb of helping old and rural voters.

According to the news channel, the visuals are from 16/56 Dhawja Nagar polling station of Sepahijala district, which falls under the West Tripura Lok Sabha constituency where the key contenders are the CPM’s Sankar Prasad Dutta and the Congress’ Arunoday Saha.

In the visuals, it is clear that the only polling agent present in the polling station belonged to the Left Front. Only one police personnel was seen inside the polling station; he was sitting and not guarding the entrance of the polling booth, which was his duty at that hour.

According to the Election Commission (EC) guidelines, apart from the polling officials, polling agents and security personnel, no one else can stay permanently inside the polling booth. But in the visuals, a man wearing a black striped T-shirt, who the channel claims is a local CPM strongman, was seen loitering inside the polling booth throughout the polling process on 7 April. He was neither a polling agent nor a security personnel.

It was also evident from the visuals how he was influencing the voters inside the polling booth. Ironically, the polling staff remained mute spectators whereas the guidelines say that any unauthorised person entering the booth without permission has to be arrested at once.

Yet another visual shows a person wearing a white full-sleeves shirt, whom the channel and Opposition parties allege to be another local CPM member, controlling the queue of voters, which only security personnel are supposed to do. This amounts to influencing voters. Another visual shows an old Muslim man on his way to cast his vote. In the garb of helping the old man, the CPM member actually casts his vote.

The EC guidelines say that if a voter is blind, only a family member can accompany him/her to the polling compartment, not any member of a political party. The same man again comes to help another old man and actually influences his voting. The EC guidelines state that one person cannot accompany two voters to the same booth, but the polling officials never stopped him.

In yet another visual, a new discrepancy came to light. As per the EC guidelines, if a voter is unaware of the voting procedure, the presiding officer will use a demo EVM to explain how the vote needs to be cast. In this instance, the presiding officer and the CPM agent made an old woman press the button next to the party symbol.

“We have gone through the visuals and agree that there have been lapses on the part of the polling officials,” says Tripura’s Chief Electoral Officer Ashutosh Jindal. “We have sent a report to the EC and are awaiting its reply. If the EC asks for a repolling, we will definitely conduct it. We will also take action against the polling party.”

However, Jindal claims that one of the suspected unauthorised people seen inside the booth in the visuals is actually the booth-level officer of that area.

“The entire administration is in the hands of the party in power,” alleges Subal Bhowmik, the chief of Tripura Gramin Congress, a breakaway group of the Congress party. “The people who are posted for election duty have close links with the communist regime. If you investigate their family backgrounds, you will discover this fact. So, the entire machinery is working for the ruling party.”

Bhowmik’s party has urged the EC to conduct fresh polls in the state, failing which his party has called for a 12-hour bandh in the state on 16 May, the counting day.

“We have a 30-minute raw footage that we are ready to share with the EC if they want to investigate,” says Sebak Bhattacharjee, the chief of bureau of the channel. “This is the story of only one polling booth in Tripura; there may be many such cases yet to be exposed.”

“If there were lapses on the part of the polling personnel, the EC is there to take action,” says CPM state secretary Bijon Dhar. “The Opposition always makes allegations of rigging. When the popular mandate is in our favour, why do we need to rig the polls? We have performed, that is why we have been in power for so many years.”

But the television channel’s exposé has kick-started a debate on poll rigging. Now, the ball is in the EC’s court.

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