No Consultations: Row Over Modi's Move for Postal Ballots to All Over-65s, COVID Patients

The recent amendment allowing changes to the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, appears to have been singularly a government decision and is applicable to not just Bihar but the whole country, with no sunset clause.

New Delhi: The Union government’s decision to allow people over the age of 65 and all confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients to vote by postal ballot has sparked a political row.

On Thursday, the Election Commission of India (ECI) spokesperson Sheyphali Sharan tweeted a gazette notification by the Union Ministry of Law and Justice, dated July 19, that allows changes to the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, under the Conduct of Elections (Amendment) Rules, 2020.

The amendment revised the earlier age of 80 years for using postal ballot to 65 years. The changes also enabled the provision for “COVID-19 suspect or affected persons”.

That the move has come ahead of the Bihar assembly elections to be held in November has led to opposition parties clamouring over a lack of discussion over such a paradigmatic shift. Until October, 2019, postal ballots were allowed only for Armed Forces’ personnel stationed outside their constituencies and those assigned election duty. The Narendra Modi government extended it to the disabled and all people over 80 on October 22 last year, in an apparent move to boost voter turnout.

In February 2020, Delhi became the first state to implement the changed rules for its assembly polls. In the recent Rajya Sabha elections to fill 19 vacancies, postal ballots were arranged for those legislators who were unwell.

Also read: COVID-19 and Elections: EC May Allow Voting Through Postal Ballots in Bihar

The latest amendment in July, 2020 has now further relaxed the use of postal ballots. Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra had told The Indian Express earlier that the ECI had alerted the Union law ministry to the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a need to expand the scope of postal ballots for suspected or affected infected persons. He said the ministry had accepted the proposal and a new category of “COVID-19 suspect or affected persons” has been added under Rule 27A of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.

However, it appears that relaxing the age limit for postal ballots – a decision that comes with no expiry date – was the government’s own idea.

Opposition parties protest

Both the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have strongly objected to the decision as they felt there was no consensus-building around it.

On Friday, a Congress delegation made an online presentation before the ECI, urging it to withdraw the decision. It alleged that the decision was taken by the Union government without any consultations with political parties and other stakeholders. Abhishek Singhvi and Ranjt Surjewala took the lead in arguing on behalf of the Congress

Senior leaders Ahmed Patel, Kapil Sibal, Singhvi, K.C. Venugopal, and Surjewala issued a memorandum which said that the move will likely put voters under “organised administrative influence”, makes ECI officials more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, and above all may violate the secrecy clause.

The party argued that the government’s decision to expand the scope of the postal ballot system “exposes a high percentage of voters to organised administrative influence or influence by the government or the ruling party or their agents or any number of individuals who shall be able to identify these individuals in advance (with ease) and influence how they vote without the protection of the secret ballot.”

Also read: Postal Ballot Voting Rights: The Only Way Migrant Workers Can Make Their Presence Felt

Arguing against the decision to allow suspected or affected COVID-19 patients to cast their vote through postal ballots, the Congress leaders said that the move could in fact exacerbate the risk of infections. The voter will have to personally meet a government official to get her/his Form 13A and the postal ballot paper attested and notarised, thereby increasing the possibility of human contact, the party said. “…[T]he voter shall have to utilise the services of a government postal office to send his or her postal ballot and therefore, will yet again risk either contracting or spreading COVID-19 infection.”

It further argued a better alternative would be to have separate polling booths for senior citizens to minimise the risk of infections.

Most importantly, the delegation said, since the rate of rejection of postal ballots has been close to 20%, the margin of error resulting out of the new provision can “completely change the outcome of any election.”

“We request this Hon’ble Commission to utilise its powers under Article 324 of the Constitution of India and direct the immediate withdrawal of this decision and amendment to the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961,” the Congress’s memorandum said, adding that the expanding the scope of the postal ballot was “unconstitutional and illegal”.

Earlier, on June 30, the CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury also wrote to the Chief Election Commissioner to protest the government’s move. He said that consultations could have been held at a national level to arrive at a consensus.

Alleging that the decision was made in a non-transparent way, he said, “Contrary to past practice, the current changes in the Rules, both in October, 2019 and that on June 19, 2020 have not been preceded by any consultation with the political parties whatsoever. From the media reports we are constrained to infer that the tearing hurry that the ECI displays is on account of the impending Bihar Assembly elections scheduled to be held in November, 2020.”

However, the ECI responded to his letter, saying that state-level parties were consulted before the ECI approved the changes, and sent him the minutes of the meeting convened by the Bihar chief electoral officer (CEO) on June 26 that was attended by recognised political parties of the state.

Replying to the ECI, former CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP Nilotpal Basu sent off another missive to the ECI, arguing that discussions with only state-level parties in poll-bound Bihar did not suffice as the changes were applicable to the entire country.

Basu said he was already aware of the meeting called by the Bihar CEO, but added that political parties were not consulted about the decision in that meeting. They were merely informed, he said.

“In any case, a meeting of the CEO of a state with state-level political parties is no substitute for dispensing with national-level consultations on a procedure applicable to the entire country,” Basu wrote.

“The CPI(M) only urges the commission to adhere to its own enlightened practice that it had evolved over the seven decades of independent India and uphold the healthy precedent of forging consensus among political parties before ushering in any change in the procedures for the conduct of elections,” Basu said.