On June 4, the contest for the Mumbai North-West parliamentary constituency went down to the wire.

The two factions of Shiv Sena had faced off against each other in what turned out to be the closest contest in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

After several rounds of counting, Ravindra Waikar of the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena won the election by just 48 votes – the lowest victory margin in the general elections. He defeated Amol Kirtikar of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) faction.

However, several candidates raised doubts over the integrity of the counting process.

One aspect that was flagged by both Shiv Sena (UBT) and an independent candidate, Surinder Mohan Arora, was the unauthorised use of a mobile phone by Waikar’s brother-in-law, Mangesh Pandilkar, and his daughter Prajakta Waikar Mahale inside the counting centre on June 4.

The mobile phone belonged to Dinesh Gurav, a data entry operator with the Election Commission of India, who was present at the counting centre and who has been suspended by the commission. On June 13, Pandilkar and Gurav were booked by the Mumbai police for the unauthorised use of a phone.

On June 16, two Mumbai newspapers, Mid-Day and Lokmat, reported that Waikar’s brother-in-law used Gurav’s phone to generate a one-time password or OTP that allegedly unlocked an electronic voting machine.

The same day, Mumbai North-West returning officer Vandana Suryavanshi refuted these reports. “EVM is a standalone system and is independent of any secondary device,” she said in a press conference. “There is no one-time password required to programme or unlock it, and it cannot be hacked.”

In a clarification on June 17, Mid-Day said that its claim of an OTP unlocking the EVM was inadvertent and erroneous.

However, as Scroll’s investigation reveals, there are several aspects of the counting process for Mumbai North West that call for scrutiny – in particular, Gurav’s key role in the counting process and his access to Election Commission documents and software.

That gains significance in the light of allegations by Shiv Sena (UBT) workers that election officials denied them access to key election documents that could have helped them corroborate the final tally of votes. They also pointed to purported images of Gurav with Shinde’s Shiv Sena workers to allege that the data entry operator was on friendly terms with the party. Scroll has seen the images, which are in possession of a resident of Gurav’s neighbourhood.

Ravindra Waikar (left) of the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena defeated Amol Kirtikar of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray) faction by 48 votes. Credit: Twitter.

The Encore operator

At the heart of the doubts raised by Opposition candidates is Gurav’s access to Encore, an application developed by the Election Commission to process and monitor elections before, during and after the polls.

During counting, the office of the returning officer enters the candidate-wise data on votes polled into Encore and produces statutory reports, such as the tally of votes received by the candidates after every round of counting.

Returning officer Vandana Suryavanshi told Scroll that the task of entering votes into Encore was delegated to the assistant returning officer of every assembly segment.

According to an Election Commission manual on Encore, a returning officer can assign two computer assistants to enter votes into the application on counting day. Suryawanshi said that during general elections, the computer assistants are attached to assistant returning officers.

Dinesh Gurav, 45, was one such computer assistant. He was tasked with entering votes into Encore on behalf of Jairam Pawar, the assistant returning officer in Jogeshwari East assembly segment, Suryavanshi added.

An Election Commission official in Jogeshwari East told Scroll that Gurav was employed as a computer operator at the Election Commission’s office in the assembly segment since 2009. His work included voter registration, change in address, or removal of names from the voter list apart from other election-related data work.

A computer assistant can enter EVM and postal ballot votes into Encore for the polling stations assigned to him, says the manual. He can also edit the tally of votes of previous rounds.

Gurav would have needed an OTP on his mobile phone to log in into Encore – something he was authorised to do.

If Waikar’s brother-in-law was using Gurav’s phone, could it mean that the Shinde Sena candidate’s team could edit the EVM votes in the counting module on Encore to their advantage?

For one, they would have needed more information. For instance, after logging in using the OTP, the computer assistant needs additional login credentials to open the Encore counting module, says the Election Commission manual.

But, returning officer Suryavanshi pointed out that if Waikar’s team had these credentials and edited the vote count, it would have led to a mismatch that could be caught. “At the end of every round, the votes entered in Encore are compared with the votes in Part 2 of form 17C,” she said.

This form, which is generated on counting day, has data on how many votes each candidate received from a polling station. As each EVM is counted, this data is filled into the form by counting supervisors. A copy of Part 2 of Form 17C is given to the returning officer and the candidate or their representative at the end of counting.

The scrutiny of the votes entered into Encore “happens at three levels”, said Suryavanshi – “the assistant returning officer, the returning officer and the statistics department.”

An erroneous entry of votes can also be caught by a counting observer, who is either an officer of the Indian Administrative Services or a state civil services officer, and micro observers. That is to say, all of them would theoretically have overseen Gurav’s work.

The Encore manual says that the computer assistant has to print the candidate-wise break-up of votes for every table and hand it to the observer. In addition, the observer is also supposed to compare the candidate-wise break-up of EVM votes at the end of every round with Part 2 of Form 17C, according to the Election Comission’s handbook for observers.

Only one electronic voting machine is counted at a table at one time. Fourteen machines are counted in one round.

The micro observers, who are attached to the observer, are supposed to “ensure that the entries of the Part II of the Form 17C are correctly entered in the computer by the data entry operator”, says the Election Commission handbook for returning officers.

Sanjay Kumar Khatri, an 2010 batch IAS officer in the Uttar Pradesh cadre, was deputed as an observer for the Jogeshwari East assembly segment on June 4. “I have already shared my report with the Election Commission,” Khatri told Scroll. “I will not comment any further.”

The key document: Form 17C, Part 2

Significantly, Shiv Sena (UBT) workers say that another reason to doubt the sanctity of the counting process in Mumbai North West lies in Form 17 C, which contains the data on how many votes went to each candidate in a polling station.

The party says that it was denied copies of Part 2 of Form 17C by the returning officer for the 563 polling stations in Versova and Jogeshwari East assembly segments.

The forms would allow the party to tally the votes of each candidate in every round in every assembly segment. But at the end of the counting day on June 4, the forms for Versova and Jogeshwari East were not handed over to the party, workers from Thackeray’s Shiv Sena said.

Amit Pednekar, a Shiv Sena (UBT) appointed representative at the counting centre in Jogeshwari East, said that the party fears the counting of votes was manipulated since the ECI stopped digital displays and announcement of votes counted for at least two-and-a-half hours after the 19th round of counting on June 4.

Amol Bhingade, a Shiv Sena (UBT) counting agent, said that till that round, he was able to tally the party’s votes with the election officials. “But after they stopped announcing, we were no longer able to tally the counting,” he said.

Said Rupesh Kadam, a Shiv Sena (UBT) worker who was at the counting centre on June 4, “At that point, Kirtikar was leading ahead of Waikar.”

Two-and-a-half hours later, the results of seven rounds, from 20th till the 26th, were announced all at one time, said Pednekar. “We believe there is some manipulation,” he added. “We protested and demanded Form 17C data but they did not provide that.”

At the end of the 26th round of counting on June 4, Kirtikar was leading by one vote. Then the postal ballot votes were counted. They gave Waikar an overall lead of 48 votes.

Whether the data was manipulated “is difficult to ascertain that without Form 17C”, Kadam said.

An election official from the assistant returning officer’s office in Jogeshwari East told Scroll that they have submitted the Form 17 C data to the returning officer on June 18. “Candidates can take that data from them,” the official said.

The Election Commission’s norms do not account for this delay in supplying Part 2 of Form 17C. The poll body’s handbook for counting agents says that photocopies of the form “will be distributed among the counting agents present at respective counting tables for their record and verification”.

Kadam, the Shiv Sena (UBT) worker at the counting centre, also emphasised that this data had to be furnished on June 4. When Form 17C was not furnished or when the results of rounds between 19th till 26th were announced all at once after a prolonged delay, “it raises concerns over the entire counting process”, he said.

Kadam added that he and other counting agents of Shiv Sena (UBT) had raised objections but they were not entertained by the returning officer.

Vandana Suryavanshi did not respond to Scroll’s queries about the alleged delay in furnishing copies of Part 2 of Form 17C to Shiv Sena (UBT) and the alleged irregularities in the counting process on June 4.

The lane in Jogeshwari where Dinesh Gurav lives. Credit: Tabassum Barnagarwala.

Gurav’s alleged Shiv Sena links

Opposition candidates have objected to Gurav’s alleged relationship with the Eknath Shinde-led Sena.

Gurav lives in Meghwadi neighbourhood in Mumbai’s Jogeshwari East, where Waikar was an MLA between 2009 and 2024.

When Scroll visited their one-room house in the narrow slum lane where his family lives, he was not home. His son Sahil said the family was unaware of the police complaint against Gurav or his suspension until the news broke in the media. “He did not tell us anything about suspension,” Sahil said. Despite repeated attempts, Gurav could not be reached on the phone.

Gurav’s neighbours and Shiv Sena (UBT) workers in Meghwadi said that Gurav is close to aides of Waikar, including his assistants Anil Mhaskar and Umesh Kadam.

Rupesh Kadam, the Shiv Sena (UBT) worker who was at the counting centre on June 4, alleged that Gurav “closely knows Waikar”. “Our counting agents saw him with Waikar’s aide Mangesh Pandilkar and his daughter inside,” he added.

To back up claims of their links, Shiv Sena (UBT) workers shared undated pictures of Gurav and Mhaskar together.

Dinesh Gurav (in a red T-shirt) with Shinde Sena worker Anil Mhaskar (white shirt) in an undated picture. Credit: Special Arrangement.

Anil Mhaskar confirmed to Scroll that he is Waikar’s assistant but said that his pictures with Gurav do not mean anything. “The Shiv Sena (UBT) people will say anything now that they have lost the election,” he said. “So what if I’m standing with him in a picture? The whole world is standing with me.”

Waikar told Scroll that since Gurav lives in Jogeshwari East and works with the Election Commission, he is bound to know local workers across political parties. “He [Gurav] is friends with Shiv Sena (UBT) people and he is also friends with our people,” said the MP.

The Election Commission official in Jogeshwari East said that they could not comment on whether Gurav was close to a political leader.

The defeated Thackeray Sena candidate, Amol Kirtikar, told Scroll that for the Election Commission to appoint a person close to a political party at the counting centre raises “doubts over the sanctity of the entire process”.

A difference, albeit minor, between the votes polled and the votes counted in Mumbai North West adds to the suspicion.

According to absolute numbers of votes polled released by the Election Comission on May 25, and also calculated by the returning officer in Mumbai North West as per form 17C, 9,51,580 votes were cast in the constituency on May 20.

But on counting day on June 4, the Election Commission said that it counted 9,51,582 votes. Similar discrepancies have been spotted in 361 other parliamentary constituencies in India.

Last week, another Mumbai North West Lok Sabha candidate from the Hindu Samaj Party, Bharat Shah, filed a petition in the Bombay High Court, asking that the election be declared null and void.

Election officials of Jogeshwari assembly segment, including Gurav (fifth from right, first row), as identified by a resident of Meghwadi, where the data entry operator lives. Credit: Facebook page of Jogeshwari East Assembly constituency.