From launching an app that guides the voters to the nearest polling booth to roping in cricketer Rahul Dravid as the state election icon, the Election Commission has left no stone unturned to ensure that voters come out of their homes to vote on May 12.
However, with less than a week to go until D Day, the autonomous body has been accused of failing in dispensing its primary duty of conducting free and fair elections. The allegations were made by independents and candidates from unrecognised parties who deem the EC’s rules and regulations to be undemocratic. TNM talked to a few independent candidates contesting for the upcoming election.
One of the most significant challenges faced by these candidates lies in promoting their election symbols in such a limited time period, when compared to candidates hailing from more well-known political parties, who enjoy the advantage of possessing a symbol that has been around for years.
Peter Samson, an independent candidate contesting from Shantinagar says, “People recognise us by our symbols. If we get the symbol just two weeks before the election date, then how do we get recognised? [It] is very difficult. The candidates of [older] political parties already have a symbol and are able to start their campaign activities almost a year in advance.”
The Independent Warriors and Unrecognised Parties, a body that addresses the concerns of independents and candidates from unrecognised parties, issued a press release on May 3, which alleged that the rules and restrictions laid down by the EC were neither free nor fair. They claimed that the skewed rules put them at a clear disadvantage when compared to the candidates from political parties which have a long standing political history with large funds at their disposal.
Another major issue raised by the body was the discriminatory practice followed in the procurement of the voters list. Recognised political parties were allegedly provided with free copies of the voters list, while other candidates were expected to pay Rs 2 per page to obtain the same. “Why are the rules framed for the parties? It is the individuals who contest the elections and not the parties. So every individual should be treated the same. How can one candidate be given the voters list free of cost and enjoy the advantage of a well-known symbol, when the other is deprived of these privileges?” says Narendra Kumar, a member of the body and an independent candidate from Byatarayanapura constituency.
Among other restrictions contested by the group is the Rs 20,000 cash expenditure limit on campaign activities, which constitute less than 1% of the total permitted expenditure of Rs 28 lakh. Candidates claim that it is unrealistic of the EC to expect them to manage the remaining 99% of their transactions through banks, considering that the cost of distributing flyers through newspapers to 50,000 households alone will cost them about Rs 25,000.
Another common concern voiced by these candidates is the intimidating presence of party members in the vicinity of polling stations. They demand that the booth agents should be disallowed from distributing the voter information slips as their presence could hinder people from exercising their freedom in voting for the candidate of their choice.
“These men under the guise of distributing voter info slips try to influence the voters. The distribution work should be done by the EC officials instead,” says Ashwini C, an independent contesting from Dasarahalli.
Election data analyst, PG Bhat, sympathises with the difficulties experienced by the independents and the candidates from unrecognised political parties. He agrees that they receive very little support from the Election Commission. He says that although these problems were brought to the notice of the Election Commission before, they have shown little interest in making amends. “These issues were raised at the annual conference of the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) that took place a month ago. Om Prakash Rawat, the Chief Election Commissioner, who was the chief guest at the event, was unable to give a convincing answer in the matter. There is no reason for not announcing the election dates earlier. The [recognized] political parties decide their agenda well in advance and have their own ways of getting in touch with the public. For the independents and the smaller party candidates, it’s difficult to decide unless there is some official communication.”
Bhat points out that another problem that needs to be addressed is the poor quality of data provided by the Election Commission’s office and the difficulty in accessing it. He claims that some political parties procure the data from other illegal bodies who sell the data at seven paise per voter record. “For them spending 14 to 15 lakhs on the data is not an issue. By making the system more complex they are only blocking it from well-intentioned people,” he says.
Sanjiv Kumar, the Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka, however, claimed to be unaware of the existence of such issues among the candidates. He responded to these allegations by saying, “As per the law of the land the political parties have a different degree of recognition and they enjoy certain privileges. These laws are framed by the government and placed before the parliament. The Election Commission has nothing to do with this. You change the law [and] we will implement it.”