By P. Sreekumaran
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: This week witnessed a slew of setbacks for the Leader Of the Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala (LOP) in particular and the Congress-led United Democratic Front(UDF) in general in Kearala on the eve of the assembly polling on April 6.
The first jolt came when the Kerala High Court stayed the order of the Election Commission stopping the distribution of rice to non-priority ration card holders in view of the Vishu-Easter-Ramzan festival season. The stay came on a petition filed by the State Government seeking to quash the Election Commission’s order. The HC order, which has come as a huge relief to the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government, will enable it to continue the distribution of rice as decided earlier.
The only condition the High Court has set is that the stay order should not be used by the ruling party and the Government to influence the voters. It should be implemented strictly in accordance with the model code of conduct. The Court has also directed that ostentatious functions should not be held to mark the rice distribution. Nor should any effort be made to create an impression that such welfare and relief measures are being undertaken by the Government to influence the voters in favour of the ruling party.
In its argument, the Government had said that the model code of conduct does not apply to the implementation of ongoing programmes. Moreover, the decision on special distribution was taken on February 4, much before the election notification. It was taken on the basis of the Kerala Budget -2021. The Government had announced that additional rice of 10 kg at the rate of Rs 15 per kg would be distributed to 50 lakh families with blue and white ration cards – the non-priority card holders. Therefore, it will not fall under the provisions of the model code of conduct.
The Election Commission (EC) had ordered stoppage of the distribution of rice on receipt of a petition from Ramesh Chennithala. The Leader of the Opposition had contended that the distribution of rice constituted a violation of the code of conduct and was meant to influence the voters. The LOP’s ‘cruel’ act had evoked widespread criticism. Even a section within the Congress frowned upon the LOP’s action. Of course, the LDF Government, the CPI(M) and the CPI also vehemently criticised the move to stop rice distribution. The LDF leaders said the people, who had been hit hard by the EC order, would give a fitting reply on the day of polling.
The EC clearly made a mistake in taking a hasty decision to stop rice distribution. The thoughtless act gave the Government and the ruling coalition an opportunity to put the Congress-led UDF on the mat. The EC should have known that it is a settled law that the objective of the model code of conduct is not to stop all governmental activities in the state. If the Commission was worried about opposition from political parties, such opposition is not a material factor. Thus it was clear that the EC’s act was not legally sustainable.
Chennithala and Congress suffered a second setback when the High Court refused to concede his main demand on fake votes. Chennithala had sought a directive to the EC and the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) to delete or freeze the fake and multiple entries of names in the final electoral rolls published for the Assembly elections. Chennithala’s counsel had submitted that there are about 3, 24,441 double votes and 1, 09, 601 bogus voters, spread over 131 constituencies and 4, 34, 042 double/fake voters in the final electoral rolls. Despite lodging complaints with the poll panel, no action has been taken, his counsel argued.
The Court, however, refused to delete or freeze the fake and multiple entries of names in the final electoral rolls. But it directed the EC and the CEO to ensure that no double voting takes place on polling day in the State. “We are of the prima facie view that there are discrepancies in the final voters’ list published by the Election Commission. It should make sure that sufficient state and central forces are posted at all voting places to ensure fair and democratic elections. To implement the order, steps should be taken on a war footing,” said the division bench consisting of Chief Justice S. Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly. The bench said the order should be implemented in letter and spirit without any room for complaints.
On his part, Chennithala welcomed the HC order. But he is not fully happy about it. The Leader Of the Opposition also disagreed with the submission EC made in the High Court that it could identify only 38,586 demographically similar entries (DSEs) after an in-depth analysis of the data provided by political parties on multiple entries in the electoral roll for the Assembly election. The EC also submitted that, in of each of the 38, 586 DSEs, Booth Level Officers (BLOs) would conduct physical verification. It would be marked in the ASD (Absentees, shifted and dead) list to be prepared by the BLO. These lists will, then, be handed over to the presiding officers along with voters’ list to avert bogus voting. No modification, addition or deletion were possible to remove the discrepancies in the electoral roll after March 19, the last date for filing nominations.
Chennithala, who accused the EC and the CEO of not being serious about tackling the sensitive issue, then went ahead with his plan to upload the entire list of 4.3 lakh fake entries on the web. Chennithala’s “Operation Twins” will enable anyone to access the entire list of multiple entries in each of the 140 constituencies. The website contains the multiple entries of voters and voters’ IDs created with the same photographs but in different names in various booths in different nearby constituencies. The website www.operationtwins.com gives the constituency number, booth number, names of candidates, the name of the voter in that constituency, voter ID and the voter ID and addresses of the same person in the neighbouring constituency.
Chennithala’s effort all along has been to blame it all on the CPI(M). He would have the people believe that it was the CPI(M)’s collusion with pro-LDF officials which has resulted in a large number of bogus and double voters. Ironically, in some of the cases Chennithala cited in support of his argument, Congress candidates themselves were also found to have double votes. The mother of it all is the fact that Chennithala’s mother too has double votes!
When this fact came to light, a sheepish and visibly embarrassed Leader of the Opposition sought to blame the EC officials for the failure to ensure that his mother has only one vote. The CPI(M) has, of course, denied Chennithala’s allegations. The party’s stand, the Chief Minister said, is that not even a single person should be allowed to vote twice. Criminal cases can be filed against persons trying to indulge in bogus and double voting. It is the duty of the Election Commission to ensure that neither bogus voting nor double voting takes place.
Meanwhile, CPI(M) politburo member M. A. Baby has accused the Leader of the Opposition of having leaked the personal details of 4.34 lakh voters, whose names were duplicated on the electoral rolls, through the Singapore-based www.operationtwins.com portal. Baby said the IP address shows the portal is based in Singapore and Chennithala handed over the personal information to the foreign-based portal without the consent of the people. This raises serious ethical and legal issues, Baby added.
In a highly significant move, the Central Election Commission has deputed the Central Electoral Officer in Bihar to visit Kerala for an on-the-spot study of the situation. The CEO of one State visiting another State is a rare occurrence. The action also amounts to an expression of the Chief Election Commissioner’s displeasure over the manner in which the CEO in Kerala has handled the delicate matter. An expert IT team has also been sent to Kerala.
The third setback to the LOP relates to his claim that the Government is yet to cancel the agreement it had signed with the US-based EMCC on deep-sea fishing. The Government has refuted Chennithala’s claim, saying that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with the EMCC (there was no agreement) had been cancelled on February 26. But the LOP is still trying to create an impression that the Government has not cancelled the ‘agreement’. This, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and other LDF leaders aver, is to deliberately mislead the fishermen community and create resentment in their minds against the Government. Moreover, the State Government simply cannot proceed in the matter unless and until it gets the green signal from the Central Government. And Union Minister Giriraj Singh is on record that the Centre has not given permission to the State Government.
Last but not the least, Chennithala has been pushed on the defensive by senior Congress leader K. Muraleedharan, who is the party candidate in Nemom constituency, the lone seat the BJP has in the outgoing assembly. Muraleedharan’s grouse: the LOP skipped his constituency, but found time to campaign for Congress candidate VS Sivakumar in the neighbouring Thiruvananthapuram Central constituency. Shivakumar, incidentally, belongs to the I group led by Ramesh! A classic case of group interests ism getting precedence over those of the party. Another senior Congress leader, Shashi Tharoor, the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, also administered a snub to Chennithala and Oommen Chandy. Tharoor, who does not belong to any group in the Congress, made no secret of his displeasure over rampant groupism in the party, and urged both the leaders to stop playing group politics, which has been the bane of the Congress in Kerala. (IPA Service)