Chief election commissioner VS Sampath on Thursday held a rare press conference following the controversy over Narendra Modi being denied permission to hold a rally in Varanasi, asserting that the poll watchdog was not afraid of any political party and was committed to ensuring "free, fair and peaceful" elections in a non-partisan manner.
With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) turning the heat on the Election Commission (EC) and Modi himself calling it biased, Sampath said, "We are disappointed that questions are being raised over the commission's impartiality… jurisdiction… We are not afraid of any political party or entity in discharging our duty."
"EC has come across certain harsh statements. We reassure that EC is doing its job in strict non-partisan manner."
Sampath also said a BJP delegation met officials of the commission earlier in the day, adding the meeting was peaceful.
A controversy had erupted on Wednesday, as the saffron party accused the EC of being a "mute spectator" after the Varanasi district administration refused permission for a rally by BJP's PM nominee Modi in Varanasi's Beniyabagh area, which has a sizeable Muslim population.
District magistrate and returning officer Pranjal Yadav's decision evoked sharp reaction from the BJP camp, with senior party leaders such as Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah spearheading a massive demonstration in Varanasi, which goes to polls next Monday in the last phase and has Modi in the fray.
Defending the denial of permission, Sampath said the decision was taken on the basis of professional advice and there was no need to deviate from it.
"Where security issues are involved, EC goes by expertise given by local administration," an ANI tweet quoted Sampath as saying.
"Competent local authorities, for security reasons, were unable to give permission for (Modi's) public meeting in Beniyabagh."
Beniyabagh ground, where Modi's rally was slated for Thursday, has a history of law and order problem. In the 1991 elections, a riot-like situation had posed a tough challenge to the administration during a rally by BJP leader Shatrughan Sinha.
Highlighting that the 2014 polls were a "mammoth exercise in the history of mankind", Sampath requested parties making sweeping allegations against the poll watchdog to act in a more matured way.
"Credibility and neutrality of Indian elections is now a national heritage and a matter of admiration for the whole world," another ANI tweet quoted Sampath as saying.
"(We) Request leaders to use proper discourse while referring to constitutional body like EC."
When asked about the controversy over the photograph of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi standing inside a polling booth in his constituency Amethi, Samath said, "EC has sought report on allegation that Rahul Gandhi violated model code of conduct by going to polling area in booths in Amethi (which voted on Wednesday)."