The Election Commission wrote to the Narendra Modi-led government four times since 2016, seeking the power to cancel or postpone elections if incidents of bribery of voters are reported in any constituency or booth, The Wire reported on Monday. However, the Centre rejected the request each time, it added.
The Wire said it had accessed several documents from the Election Commission regarding this matter using a Right to Information query. The documents include letters from Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. “The letters clearly show that despite the rampant misuse of money in elections, the government is reluctant to give the commission the right to countermand elections if cases of bribing surface,” the news website said.
The poll body first wrote to the government on June 6, 2016, seeking an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951. The poll body wanted the Centre to introduce Section 58b, on the lines of Section 58a, under which the Election Commission has the right to adjourn or countermand elections in case of booth capturing. The poll panel said Section 58b should allow similar powers in case of bribery of voters.
However, Prasad dismissed the poll panel’s suggestion, claiming that booth capturing and voter bribery are not similar offences. “As far as the proposal to include special provision in the Representation of the People Act 1951, for cancelling elections in case of bribery of voters, is concerned, I can say it is not advisable to compare booth-capturing with allegation of bribery of voters since the circumstances are incomparable,” Prasad told then-Chief Election Commissioner Naseem Zaidi in a letter dated November 18, 2016. “Allegations of bribery are always a matter of investigation and proof. Besides, the Commission has been dealing with such situations in the past under the powers vested in Article 324 of the Constitution.”
However, Zaidi wrote back on November 23 that year, saying that even in cases of booth capturing, the poll panel takes legal action only after verifying facts, and therefore bribery of voters need not be looked at in a different light.
The poll panel sent a similar letter to the Centre on April 24, 2017, discussing the seizing of liquor and cash during Assembly elections. “Bribery in elections is an attempt to manipulate the electors to influence their choice, and is a very serious offence in the context of free and fair elections,” the poll body said. “Considering the huge vitiating effect of the offence, the Commission is of the view that this offence has to be put on a different pedestal as compared to other offences for the purposes of disqualification for contesting elections.”
But no chief election commissioner after Zaidi made a similar proposal to the government, The Wire reported. “Since the cases of bribery have become very widespread, Article 324 cannot be used repeatedly,” Zaidi told The Wire. “It is insufficient. There is need for a separate law. The way the commission brought down instances of booth-capturing by 99.99% by enacting a law, similarly, it will be able to control bribery if a law is formulated.”
He said the poll body should keep recommending change in the law to the Centre.