Agartala, May 08, 2019: In what seems to be classic case of tailspin effect for Election department not properly handling the Parliamentary elections to the West Tripura constituency before and on the day of the polling- April 11. 2019- now a Pandora’s box seemed to be opening. The latest development being that some of the central government / central PSU officials who had been engaged as ‘micro observers’’ and were later slammed with the ‘poll rigging cases’ were now mulling the idea to go to courts against the Election Commission decisions.
Add it was the serious resentment among the Tripura police for putting the onus of lack of security arrangements on them while the entire security manoeuvre and management had actually been done by the CEO Sri Ram Taranikanti and officials only.
Besides, there were also reports of a palpable sense of unease and uncertainty among the administrative officers who found it difficult to cope with the unexplained alacrity and often alleged haughty behaviours on the part of the senior poll officials in taking decisions and throwing up instructions at them. All in all, allegations were being levelled against the top-level Election conducting officials of the state, including CEO Sriram Taranikanti inviting criticism from the various quarters.
MICRO LEVEL ALLEGATIONS
“Fact is it was a total mess”, said a senior central PSU official to the Tripura Times as a delegation came to file complaints with the newspaper with documents etc.
They had reasons for being agitated. After many of them—the micro observers slammed with the Section 135 A and Section 123 (B) – these micro observers- many of who were from outside the state- were put in a soup. While they claimed to have been falsely implicated, they now would have to face the actions from both the state apparatus for allegedly indulging in poll manipulation and then from their own PSU / central government institution authorities.
WHERE WAS OUR FAULT, ASK THE MOs
The Section 135 A of the RP Act said: Any person who at any election 1[unauthorisedly] takes, or attempts to take, a ballot paper out of a polling station, or willfully aids or abets the doing of any such act, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to five hundred rupees or with both while the Section 123(1) in The Representation of the People Act, 1951. (b) said , by any person whomsoever for himself or any other person for voting or refraining from voting, or inducing or attempting to induce any elector to vote or refrain from voting, or any candidate 2[to withdraw or not to withdraw] his candidature.
In fine, the sections largely amount to simple “vote rigging or in other words booth capturing”. “This is simple uncalled-for and, in a sense, audacious. First, while there was no official notification regarding booth capturing’ the Micro observers were accused of booth capturing”, said an official from a central PSU. For obvious reasons he preferred to remain anonymous.
“Secondly, while the ECI guidelines empowers ECI only to recommend disciplinary actions against any of the errant micro observer or poll personnel to the competent authorities the EC here in Tripura are sending suspension orders, show cause notices and also lodging FIRs on the polling officials they felt to have committed irregularities”, he added. He questioned as to why an outsider and a central government or central PSU officials should indulge in such malpractice here in Tripura—they were chosen by the EC and many of them had come here only some months ago—neither they were anyway related to state politics nor well aware of the political dynamics of the state, nor even they know the locals. Secondly, everything related to their so-called failures seems to have been derived from the Webcasting mechanism”, said an official from a central PSU. For obvious reasons he preferred to remain anonymous.
“But the point is and which will surprise you that when our employees were called for training, they were given instructions by the poll officials for only 25 minutes and that included mostly how to open and seal the voting machines”. “Now you can imagine only 25 minutes— and that included everything. There were more: The instructions were given in Bengali and many of our Non-Bengali speaking micro observers just could not follow the instructions, some of them had requested the instructors to give instruction in English or Hindi which were also not of much help anyway”. SS Mayal, ONGC Officers’ Association president also admitted to the less time for training and language barriers and then he added “you should also know that -there was nothing related to the webcasting in the training programme for the micro observers – at least those who were engaged from the ONGC—the list sent by ONGC had 341 staff from Assistant Engineer to Chief Engineer”.
“So how you could expect they would know anything about the webcasting system etc. Besides, most of our micro observers were from technical background with ITI education and they were also not quite adept to administrative nitty gritty- that too of complex poll process, you see. Problem compounded with lacunae as far as training was concerned”. He admitted that a large group of ONGC employees seemed to be upset over the Election Commission during Lok Sabha polls to West Agartala constituency and they “were very likely to avoid any further poll or counting duties. Mayal said, they would also seek legal actions if their grievances were not addressed to.
Among all PSUs or central institutes the ONGC employees had other reasons also to be peeved about. “The ONGC comes under the essential service category and it is responsible for extremely complex and complicated technical operations across the state. The ONGC operations at fields just cannot be run by anyone without exact and proper knowledge. A small snag here or there could very well mean total failure in power sector to many other services”.
“We told the EC about it and wanted exemption, but since by then Code of Conduct came into force- the solution did not come. In fact, we had a hard time to get our fire service people excluded from the list—as any accident anywhere in ONGC operation would have led to devastating consequences. As long as the MOs were on poll duties our senior officers and senior executives had to run the show and manage the operations”, said Mayal adding that engagement of ONGC officials also entailed a huge loss on the part of ONGC.
“In last assembly polls, ONGC suffered an estimated loss of Rs. 8/9 crore per day due to manpower shortage in the operation. This time too, we apprehended the same thing well in advance, but the EC did not show any interest in our requests”. The added problem the PSUs faced that the though the polls were held on April 11, the employees were engaged from April 3. So, the ONGC faced manpower shortage from April 3 to April 12 last following which the production was affected.
The PSUs had another problem. In fact, the worst one— was that once in the list the EC started communicating with the micro observers directly by using WhatsApp messages by-passing the concerned PSU authorities. “While the WhatsApp messages would come at night at around even 10 pm asking the micro observers to move somewhere next morning – most of the places they would have not known before at all , due to bypassing the PSU apparatus the originations were also not aware of their employees’ movement etc”, pointed out another official from a PSU.
Besides, there were also no available methods to ascertain the genuineness of the message and its senders in such short notices. Here is the sample of a WhatsApp message sent by the Election Commission to Micro Observers –
“INSTRUCTION FROM GENERAL OBSERVER: IF IN ANY POLLING STATION CCTV CAMERA IS NOT INSTALLED, MICRO-OBSERVER OF THAT POLLING STATION WILL ARRANGE TO RECORD THE MOCK-POLL AND SEALING OF EVM IN THE MOBILE. AFTER START OF ELECTION ALL MOBILE PHONE WOULD BE IN SWITCHED OFF MODE. IN ANY CASE IF PHONE NEEDS TO BE SWITCHED ON, THE USER SHOULD GO OUTSIDE OF THE POLLING STATION AND MAKE THE CALL. MICRO OBSERVERS ARE INSTRUCTED TO RECORD ALL THE INCIDENTS HAPPENING IN THE POLLING STATION IN THEIR RECORD.”
Now, while in the maximum time of the 25-minute training, the participants were showed how to seal the machine, there was not a single word on installation of cameras in polling booths. The Micro Observers didn’t do anything on cameras since it was not a part of their role. However, the Election Commission cited that webcasting was not done properly in some booths; it was not reported by the Micro Observers/ Presiding Officers and started taking action against them.
An added point that some micro observers told the Tripura Times that, and what appeared to be more surprising was that— cameras were installed in many cases using a Sellotape and in many places it just peeled off the wall after sometime – in certain booths after commencement of the voting while in some booths cameras were re-installed hours after the commencement of polls.
Some question marks were also being raised relating to the remunerations meant for the poll personnel. As per the information received from Micro Observers, they have received only Rs. 1,000 in West seat and Rs. 1,150 in East seat. In some cases, the Micro Observers didn’t get anything so far. It was said that the amount would be sent to their bank account. According to Annexure (I-A), G.O, Rt. No.33/ Elections / 2018-19, dated 30.03.2019, the Micro Observers were supposed to get total Rs. 1500 (Rs. 300 for training classes, Rs. 1000 for poll day and Rs. 150 in lieu of packed food for pre-poll and poll day). [Courtesy: Tripura Times]