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28 March, 2011

Big Brother is watching

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

When organisers of an election meeting in Kerala turned up at the venue on Saturday they found a camera team at work. The team was recording the scene at the instance of the Election Commission’s observers.

Elsewhere in the state, observers, acting on a tip-off, stopped a truck and seized election posters of a political party. The posters bore the name of a press in Thiruvananthapuram but were probably printed in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

In Assam and West Bengal, tax officials seized more than Rs 75 million in cash from six persons. They were acting on information that the money was to be used for election purposes.

These incidents are indicative of the unprecedented measures taken by the Commission in the states of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal and the union territory of Puducherry, which are going to the polls next month, with a view to ensuring free and fair elections.

It has set up an elaborate monitoring system to keep track of what the parties and the candidates are doing. But for the country’s democratic framework and the context of the elections, the eagle-eye watch may have raised Orwellian fears.

The Commission has already deployed General Observers and Expenditure Observers. It plans to post Micro Observers to observe the proceedings at the polling stations on the day of the poll.

In Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, it has appointed Police Observers to keep a watch on the law and order situation. While polling in Kerala and Tamil Nadu is to be completed in one day, in Assam it will be held in two phases and in West Bengal in six phases.

West Bengal, which has 294 assembly constituencies, is the largest state figuring in the election calendar. Polling in the state has been spread over a period of more than three weeks to facilitate tighter control over the process than elsewhere, taking into account allegations that the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which heads the Left Front that has been in power continuously for more than three decades, had been resorting to rigging.

The Commission has ordered that all critical election-related events be videographed. The district election officers have been asked to arrange a sufficient number of camera teams and video and digital cameras for the purpose.

The expenditure an Assembly candidate can incur is fixed by law. After the elections each candidate is required file a statement showing the expenditure he incurred. In the past, many candidates are known to have spent more than the permitted amount and withheld items of expenditure to keep his spending within the ceiling.

The scheme devised by the Commission seeks to address complaints of laxity in enforcement of the law. It has asked the candidates to open separate bank accounts for election purposes. It has also suggested that they appoint ‘expenditure agents’ to keep track of all poll-related spending.

Video teams deployed by the Commission’s observers are moving around recording campaign scenes. A ‘shadow observation register’ on spending by each candidate is being maintained. It will be available to be produced as evidence in the court if there is an election case.

District-level media certification and monitoring committees are poring over newspapers and scrutinising television programmes for evidence of ‘paid news’.

The Election Commission started looking at the ‘paid news’ phenomenon following allegations that during the 2009 elections in Maharashtra some candidates bought space in the news columns of dailies.

The Big Brother is watching. But will the new election regime work? The Bharatiya Janata Party has complained that a news channel in Assam, of which the wife of a state minister is the managing director, is doing propaganda for the Congress and that this comes within the mischief of ‘paid news’.

While the Commission has met with some success in dealing with ‘paid news’, it is aware that the problem is a complex one. Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi has stated that self-regulation by both the media and the political parties offered the best chance of eliminating it altogether.

The camera crew at the meeting venue in Kerala were thrashed by party workers. A politician with business interests caught with cash in West Bengal claimed the money was meant for his business.

The real problem is the high level of political dishonesty and low level of democratic decency, which are problems which do not admit of easy solutions. --Gulf Today, March 28, 2011.

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