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Will the fake voter please stand up?

Will the fake voter please stand up?

Author: Saugar Sengupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 19, 2006

Voter fraud in West Bengal has left Election Commission observers stunned with the names of infants and even livestock finding their way into the state's electoral list

The amount of 'infiltration' in the electoral rolls of your state is frighteningly colossal... bewildering too... If let alone, the faking rate could easily beat the climbing Sensex," one of the 19 Election Commission observers sent to West Bengal told the press recently.

In this state, which goes to the hustings in a few months, 10 lakh names have already been deleted from voter lists and more bogus names are appearing by the day. "Though the actual figure could be double the number that has been identified, we are sure we will be able to strike out a majority of them," said another observer doing duty in north Bengal.

When Election Commission observer for Murshidabad RK Khandelwal asked the middle-aged Ajizul Haq how his 11-year-old daughter Ebrana Begum's name could sneak into the electoral rolls, Haq promptly told him that three-day-old infants and even the names of livestock have managed to figure on the poll lists. Haq later told the media how local comrades had managed to fudge the rolls through the years.

In Nimo in Bardhaman district, observer Rabindranath Das stumbled upon four Bangladeshis - Malati Dutta, Bina Mandal, Pankaj Mandal and Gosai Bairagya - trying to get their names included in the voters' list. The four later acknowledged that they had availed of the services of Communist party workers to obtain a citizenship.

In Bongaon sub-division, the "gateway to Bangladesh", security forces found a printing press printing counterfeit electronic photo identity cards. Also seized was a host of related paraphernalia, from computers to formula for making holograms. The Left Front promptly distanced itself from those arrested, saying the accused were not party members.

But when the name of one Parimal Biswas, a former CPI-M panchayat member and active party cadre, was made public, the Marxist connection became evident. The party leadership said it would expel Biswas once the charges were proved. Subsequent inquiries revealed that Biswas, with help from some party members, had procured the hologram from Mumbai.

So big is voting fraud in West Bengal that Election Commission observers had to delete thousands of names in every district of the state. By the beginning of February, more than 29,000 bogus voter names had been deleted in Coochbehar alone. The Left Front there has reigned supreme despite infighting among its partners - CPI-M, the RSP and the Forward Bloc. But the district that heads the list in this respect is Nadia where KJ Rao - the hero of the Bihar polls - was sent.

Mr Rao had more than 94,000 bogus names deleted from the rolls. Around the same time, in West Midnapore, bogus voter names totalled a whopping 73,000. The figure for Bardhaman was around 1.1 lakh till reports last came in. Interestingly, Bardhaman, a CPI-M stronghold, has repeatedly brought victory to the Front by record margins.

In Hooghly, the number of fake voters went up to 45,000. In South 24 Parganas, which also includes large parts of southern Kolkata, the number of fake voters crossed one lakh till the second round of survey began. More than 6,000 names have been deleted in Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's Jadavpur constituency.

In northern parts of the state, while Ghani Khan Chowdhury's Malda accounted for 39,000 fake voters, neighbouring Murshidabad had 47,000 fake voters thrown off the list. In Darjeeling, that number hovered around the 35,000 mark. "The numbers could increase till the publication of the revised voters' list," state Chief Electoral Officer Debashis Sen subsequently said.

The impact KJ Rao and his colleague N Sivasailan have had on the state machinery is immense. The bureaucracy - used to looking the other way whenever a poll-related crime was reported through the last 29 years - has been hauled up by the Election Commission like never before.

"We won't say this government is good or that government might have been better but surely this lot of officers have fired us up, or should we say nudged many of us to act. Now many of us have to take action regardless of our personal beliefs. Not always are the complaints lodged against the ruling party men; often, Opposition politicians have been rebuked by the observers for reporting spitefully," said an IPS officer requesting anonymity.

Such has been the pressure on the bureaucracy that a Murshidabad BDO tried killing himself by consuming pesticide and had to be put in the ICU after he was transferred following Election Commission orders. According to the state Chief Electoral Officer, 19 officials have been either transferred or suspended or sent showcause notices by the Election Commission. This is in addition to transfers of senior officers like the SDOs of Uluberia, Balurghat and Coochbehar.

The exercises carried out by the Election Commission has had a fallout on the Left Front's candidate selection lists too. Experts believe that the alliance has pulled off a political masterstroke by fielding as many as 131 new candidates, thus robbing the Opposition off the weapon of anti-incumbency for perhaps the first time since 1982.

According to earlier reports, the Left had decided to lay off only about 90 old candidates. But with ghost names off the rolls, party leaders decided to field more non-controversial candidates. Unlike on earlier occasions, the Front has reduced its number of schoolteacher candidates and brought in a generation of academicians and intellectuals, including journalists.

The Left has also taken other steps to neutralise the impact the observers have had. According to reports, while the Opposition was making an issue of the Salem land deal, Marxist cadres were busy inserting 45 lakh new names into the electoral list. Out of this, a little more than three lakh applications have been cancelled by the Election Commission. "We know this and have brought it to the notice of the Commission," said Congress leader Manas Bhuian. But even he doesn't know how the Election Commission will stop this bogus voter wave.

According to a Kolkata CPI-M district committee member, more than 70 percent new names in that list belong to the Left Front. That would mean around 29 lakh voters. What the leader goes on to assert appears to be more dangerous: "Forget those 10 lakh voters, even if we do not count a few lakh new names who will stop us from increasing our vote share by another 20 lakh?"

No wonder Left Front chairman Biman Bose, talking about the number of Assembly seats, said, "This time, we want to cross the 260 mark." The highest number of seats for the Left was in 1987, when it won 251 of the 294 West Bengal assembly seats.

If the Election Commission has its way, the climb might just be steeper for the Left.

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