RS poll battle taken to its office, EC allows counting in 2 states after midnight

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The battleground for 16 Rajya Sabha seats across four states — Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Haryana and Karnataka — shifted to the Election Commission of India’s (EC) headquarters in New Delhi late Friday night, with delegations of all parties arriving at EC office and delaying the counting in the nail-biting elections in Haryana and Maharashtra.

What followed were marathon meetings for Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar and Election Commissioners present at Nirvachan Sadan with representatives of all parties from 5.30 pm till late Friday night, going through returning officers’ orders, and viewing the video footage of allegations made by the parties.

Finally, in an order around 1 am Saturday, the EC moved to allow counting of votes to commence in Haryana and in Maharashtra after directing the returning officer (RO) to reject the vote cast by Shiv Sena MLA Suhas Kande. The EC also allowed counting to begin in Haryana.

An EC official said, requesting anonymity: “The BJP delegation arrived first, around 5.30 pm, to submit complaints on Haryana and Maharashtra. The Congress team arrived around 6.30 pm to counter the BJP, as also submit their complaint. Around 9 pm, another delegation arrived with a complaint against an Independent MLA [in Maharashtra] for openly displaying Hanuman Chalisa…till around 10 pm these complaints were scrutinised and counter-versions were heard.”

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“We have to hear what the RO has to say; the Commission cannot intervene until the RO passes an order and then examine it,” the official said. “Once he passes an order, and we felt there were contesting claims, we go through video footage. We received about a dozen complaints and eventually, after examining all footage, we found only one issue. After that the order was passed after midnight.”

The high-intensity political drama began when a BJP delegation comprising Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Jitendra Singh and Arjun Ram Meghwal, among others, arrived at EC office at 5.30 pm and alleged that the RO improperly rejected representation of BJP’s authorised representatives in Maharashtra. They alleged that three MLAs — Yashomati Thakur, Jitendra Avhad and Suhas Kande — had compromised voting procedures.

They cited EC’s decision in then Congress MP Ahmed Patel’s case in 2017 — the poll panel had set down conditions wherein any vote cast in violation of election rules would be cancelled, whether at the time of voting or counting. In the high-stakes Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat in 2017, the EC had, in a boost to Congress candidate Patel, disqualified two votes by Congress MLAs that were in favour of BJP.

The BJP team was followed by a delegation with a complaint jointly signed by NCP’s Jayant Patil, Congress’s Balasaheb Thorat and Sena’s Anil Desai against a BJP MLA for allegedly violating procedures by openly displaying his ballot paper to persons other than his own party’s election agents. They also alleged that an Independent MLA, Ravi Rana, compromised procedure by openly displaying Hanuman Chalisa, a religious book and sought to influence other voters and violated the secrecy of the ballot.

They, too, cited EC’s Ahmed Patel order.

Nirvachan Sadan soon saw another delegation around 9 pm, led by Congress’s Nana Patole against BJP MLA Sudhir Mugantiwar for allegedly displaying his ballot paper to persons other than BJP polling agents.

Sources said EC found no evidence against BJP’s complaints regarding voting in Haryana and Maharashtra.

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In its order, EC noted that the video recording in the matter of Sena MLA Kande — that he had allegedly shown the marked ballot paper to his authorised representative as well as authorised representative of another party, “NCP” — is consistent with three facts mentioned by the RO in his report: “that the voter, instead of taking the ballot paper in the folded form, took it without folding; (b) that Kande showed the ballot paper to the authorised representative of his party from outside the cubicle of authorised representative; he was then asked to go inside the cubicle.”

“Despite being asked by polling staff to go inside the cubicle, he lingered with unfolded ballot paper,” the EC said in its order.

“In fact, the footage showed that symbols on his [Kande’s] ballot paper could be seen by others too…this was the only complaint we found to be true among all the others,” the official quoted above said.

The Commission invoked Article 324 of the Constitution and other powers to reject the vote cast by Kande.

EDOT: Why Sena MLA’s vote was rejected

Rules state that an elector in Rajya Sabha polls has to show his/her ballot paper “only to the authorised representative of his party, and to no one else”. And Independent MLAs are “not to show” their ballot paper “to anyone at all”, as EC noted in its order while rejecting the vote cast by Sena legislator Suhas Kande.

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