Sandeep Sahu

One of the abiding memories of reporting elections in the state in the pre-EVM days for this columnist is the editors sitting in Delhi telling him at the end of polling, in mock disappointment; “What an oasis of peace you are based in, Sandeep! Nothing to report on Election Day??” All that one had to report was the tentative voting percentage, given out by officials at the end of the day’s polling. The ‘incidents’, if any, were too trivial – a ballot box snatched here, a minor commotion caused by missing names in the voter list there – to report for state level reporters of national media houses. This at a time when most states in northern India reported killings, violence, rigging, booth capturing and worse on a massive scale. One wondered whether to be happy or disappointed about the back-handed compliment from the editors in the national capital. Happy because ours is an ‘island of peace’, a land of ‘ahimsa’ and disappointed because there was nothing to report on Election Day! (Journalists, after all, are a cynical lot!) 

Well, we have clearly come a long since then, if the evidence of the first three rounds of voting for the three-tier panchayat elections is anything to go by. After some incidents of violence were reported during the first round of polling on February 16, DGP Sunil Bansal issued a stern warning to the potential mischief-mongers, saying violence will not be tolerated and will invite stringent action. To prove that the DGP’s was not an empty threat, large scale arrests followed the day after the incidents of rigging and attack on journalists in Brahmagiri. But far from getting unnerved, the miscreants grew even more nonchalant and violent during the next two rounds; rigging booths, snatching away ballot boxes and launching murderous assaults on rivals, officials and even police officers. Journalists recording incidents of rigging were specially targeted by the goons. The visuals of the assault on scribes at the Bachhol panchayat of Binjharpur block in Jajpur during the third round of polling on Sunday are particularly disturbing and raise serious questions about the ability of the police to provide them an environment where they can discharge their responsibilities honestly, diligently and without fear.

But then it is perhaps unrealistic to expect the police to provide protection to journalists when they are themselves not safe from the murderous hordes on a rampage on polling day. A police sub inspector was assaulted with plastic pipes at a booth in Rajnagar but fortunately got away without any grievous injuries only because the IIC arrived with force in the nick of time. At least two other police personnel sustained serious injuries due to heavy stone-pelting by miscreants during voting for the third phase on Sunday. It was as if the goons were cocking a snook at the DGP and telling him; “We shall continue to do what we are doing. Try stopping us!”

In a clear indication that the DGP’s warning has fallen on deaf ears and there would be no respite from violence during the fourth phase on Tuesday either, late on Sunday night three persons were critically injured in a clash between two factions of the same party in Choudwar area, scheduled to vote on Tuesday.

The one noticeable thing during the three phases of polling so far has been that the most of the major incidents of violence have taken place in the politically volatile coastal Odisha while polling has passed off relatively peacefully in the areas grappling with left wing extremism. One reason for this could be the fact that stakes are extremely high for all parties in this election – and more so for the BJD in what is its bastion. The presence of a large number of rebel candidates of the ruling party has further vitiated the already volatile situation. It is a battle of survival – and supremacy - for MLAs and leaders of the party because their standing – and future prospects – would depend largely on their ability to get the ‘official’ party candidate elected. And hence the no-holds-barred battle that we are witnessing.

The other noticeable thing about this election is that violence and rigging on such a large scale was conspicuous by its absence in the general elections in April, May, 2019. A possible reason for this contrast could be that the stakes are much higher for the people as well as various parties and factions this time since these are grassroots level elections that would determine how the vast sum of money pumped into panchayats under various government schemes, both central and state, would be spent over the next five years.

But is it also possible that the use of the ballot papers, instead of EVMs, has made the ‘task’ of rigging easier? A stray thought, for sure, but worth pondering about all the same. EVM has its critics – and sceptics – who allege that it can be tampered with, an allegation that is yet to be proved beyond doubt so far. But the one thing that even its worst critics agree on is it has put an end of large-scale rigging, booth-capturing and violence that had become routine in the days before its arrival.

So, is there a case for the use of EVMs in panchayat elections too?

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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