Bihar is due to go to the polls later this year.(Diwakar Prasad/ Hindustan Times)
Bihar is due to go to the polls later this year.(Diwakar Prasad/ Hindustan Times)

Bihar polls: 5 parties protest postal ballot move

Bihar is due to go to the polls later this year. The state is ruled by a coalition of the Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON JUL 09, 2020 02:45 AM IST

After the ministry of law and justice amended the rules to enable those over the age of 65 years and people infected with the coronavirus disease or suspected of having contracted the infection to vote by postal ballot ahead of the upcoming Bihar elections, five opposition parties are up in arms against the move.

Congress, Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), Rashtriya Janata Dal and Trinamool Congress have all written to the chief election commissioner (CEC) to review the move. The controversy started last week when CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said the amendment will “help the ruling party.”

Following Yechury’s comments, Congress sent a representation to CEC Sunil Arora to review the decision.

“The manner in which this decision has been taken demonstrates a complete non-application of mind and a shocking circumvention of any consultation process with the key stakeholders (i.e. any other political parties other than the ruling regime). Even upon a cursory examination, the numerous legal deficiencies in this decision become apparent,” the Congress said in its representation.

Bihar is due to go to the polls later this year. The state is ruled by a coalition of the Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In February, Delhi became the first state to experiment with postal ballots, extending the facility to those with severe disabilities or above the age of 80 years.Earlier, casting votes through postal ballots was an option available only to the armed forces and officials assigned poll duties.

Yechury said that extending the postal ballot would give the ruling party an edge and that wider consultations with political parties were needed. The Commission responded to Yechury on Wednesday, stating that the chief electoral officer of Bihar had held consultations with various political parties before the decision was taken.

EC officials told Hindustan Times that they had heard the parties’ representation with an “open mind”.

“Everyone is entitled to a viewpoint,” an official had earlier told Hindustan Times on condition of anonymity. “State and district-level talks were held before the decision was taken. This is an enabling provision.”

The official further added that same practice had been tested in the Jharkhand and Delhi elections. “No one opposed it then, why now,” the official had said.

CPI General Secretary D. Raja said the digital propaganda during the election campaign will be extremely expensive, and it will deprive political parties of a level-playing field. “It (the postal ballot) will lead to malpractice and foul play by those parties that are in power and have resources. These two proposals, if accepted, will definitely jeopardise the democratic process of free and fair elections,” Raja wrote to the Commission.

He asked the commission to hold wider and transparent consultations with all political parties.

The Trinamool Congress also wrote to the Commission, saying the move of wanting those over 65 years of age to vote through postal ballots is arbitrary, mala fide, unconstitutional and ex-facie, a violation of secrecy of vote, right to free and fair elections and right to health. “Our party is of the opinion that this amendment, issued without adequate consultation with the political parties, is antithetical to a robust and inclusive democracy,” the party said in its letter.

“This amendment seeks to effectively disenfranchise those above the age of 65 from exercising their right to vote while denying them a fair, equal and reasonable chance to participate in elections,” party general secretary Subrata Bakshi wrote.

The RJD too joined the chorus, with spokesperson Manoj Jha writing to the CEC. “We primarily opposed the manner in which the decision was taken,” Jha said. “With the postal ballot for those over 65, the ruling party will get an edge. There is a grey area which shouldn’t be there.”

Former CEC SY Quraishi, however, says that the secrecy of the vote will not be compromised because of the postal ballot. “People over the age of 65 are not allowed to move out {because of Covid-19}, so the decision to allow them to vote using postal ballots is reasonably justified. It is logical,” Quraishi said.

“The Commission always works with the cooperation of political parties, they call them and explain the rationale behind their decision,” he added.

Another former CEC, who did not wish to be named, said that the reason the postal ballot had become a bone of contention was because there is a “trust deficit” when it comes to this government.

“Everyone is suspicious of any decision as they don’t trust government enough,” said the former CEC.

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