It’s been more than three weeks since Goa voted in the Assembly elections on February 4, but political parties are still vying for votes and concerns are rife about rivals trying to influence voters.

That’s because more than 17,000 people from the coastal state will be casting their votes through postal ballots, the window for which is open till the morning of counting day on March 11.

As a result, a row has broken out in the state, with Opposition parties alleging that this provision is being used to threaten, bribe and influence those who are voting using the postal balloting system.

This is the first time that there has been such a long gap between the voting day and the counting day in the state – Goa was among the first states to go to polls in the ongoing round of Assembly elections in five states. In the last week, three parties – the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, and regional outfit Goa Forward – called press conferences to complain about this anomaly.

In all, 17,500 postal ballots have been issued to state employees – including officials, police personnel and other staff deployed on election duty on February 4. In addition, 844 ballots have been given to personnel from the armed forces, paramilitary forces and other service voters who are posted outside the state.

Opposition parties are concerned that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party could use its clout to influence these votes. Till February 17, only about a sixth of these votes had been cast, according to reports.

Crucial votes

“The Election Commission has kept a big gap between polling and counting for valid reasons,” said Goa Forward President Prabhakar Timble. “But it has not amended the provision for postal balloting. This has left an open line for postal polling for an unprecedented 36 days, in Goa’s case. Tell me, has there ever been a precedent where polling lines have been kept open for so long? This has reduced postal polling in Goa to a joke.”

In a multi-cornered election where victory margins are likely to be narrow the 17,000-odd postal ballots could be make-or-break. Goa has 40 Assembly constituencies with an average 29,000 voters each. In many segments, 600-800 postal ballots are yet to be cast.

While the BJP, the Congress and the AAP are the key players in the state, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, which was in power with the saffron party in the state, parted ways from it for the Assembly elections and has tied up with the Goa Suraksha Manch and the Shiv Sena.

Amid rumours that postal ballot voters were being given money in exchange for votes, Goa’s chief electoral officer held a meeting with political parties on February 15. Party representatives were instructed to bring any instances of voters being bribed or influenced to the notice of the chief electoral office.

All India Congress Committee Secretary Girish Chodankar told that some government employees had complained that ruling party candidates had been approaching and pressurising them. Chodankar has also earlier alleged that the serial numbers of ballot papers had been leaked to the BJP, a charge that the chief electoral office denied.

Goa Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar has brushed aside allegations of the ruling party trying to influence voters. But the controversy refuses to die down. The Goa Forward has urged the Election Commission of India not to consider the postal ballots while counting votes. The Congress too made a similar demand and suggested that a single day of polling, with Electronic Voting Machines, be organised for government employees who were on poll duty and are yet to cast their ballots.