In Goa's multi-cornered, closely fought 2022 Assembly election, postal ballots have become a bone of contention, setting off a spate of complaints over interference and influence in the casting of such votes.
Goa went to polls in a single phase on February 14, but postal ballots are permitted up to the morning of counting on March 10 for personnel from the services and government servants on election duty.
Why postal ballots matter
It is unclear how many of these voters have applied for postal ballots for this year’s poll. In the 2017 assembly election, 13,390 postal ballots were counted, amounting to an average of 334 votes per constituency across 40 segments.
Given the multi-cornered fight for the small voter base in each Assembly seat in Goa, these postal ballots can prove critical in deciding the winner. For instance, in 2017, independent Joaquim Alemao lost to his then Congress rival by a mere 33 votes, while the Congress candidate in Mormugao lost to his BJP rival by 140 votes.
This election, the month-long gap is being seen as problematic. Political parties have demanded that irrespective of the gap between polling day and counting day, the window for the postal ballot process should be limited to five days to prevent malpractices.
BJP accused of fraud
The Congress party, in a series of complaints to the Chief Election Office in Goa, and to the Election Commission of India, has alleged interference in the process, aided by the long gap.
On 21 February, the office of the CEO issued a public notice stating that “it has come to the notice of the office of the CEO that some political functionaries are trying to approach voters on election duty and trying to exert undue influence on them to vote in their favour”. The notice warned that secrecy of voting is not to be infringed on and said the postal ballot system is foolproof and the voter's identity cannot be revealed. It warned that bribery and undue influence is a corrupt practice punishable by law.
The controversy began brewing a day after the polls. On 15 February, in a complaint to the Chief Electoral Officer, Panaji, Sunil Kawthankar, General Secretary of the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee, alleged that leaders of the ruling BJP were intimidating government employees, calling them to their residences and offices with their postal ballots and directing them to vote in their favour.
On 16 February, Congress candidate Sankalp Amonkar from the Mormugao constituency complained to the returning officer that a rival candidate was calling up service voters from a specific mobile number and sought an inquiry.
On 19 February, at a press conference, Goa Pradesh Congress President Girish Chodankar alleged that the ruling BJP was offering Rs 10,000 for postal ballot votes in their favour. He demanded the EC conduct an inquiry into the matter.
Chodankar also alleged that official machinery was being used to seek a detailed list of voters who had sought postal ballots. He said details of those who had cast their votes and those who hadn't were being sought, along with the names, constituencies and phone numbers of the latter.
Postal ballots play a vital role in constituencies where close flights take place, and the ruling party was trying to identify these voters and bring them to their side, he alleged.
‘Not free and fair’
Chodankar's complaint to the EC stated that information and specific details of service voters were being provided to ruling party candidates, which violated the principle of holding free and fair polls and amounted to the process being corrupted.
“It is required to be investigated whether some officials of the election commission office in the state are indulging in such illegality of favouring the ruling party. It is clear that since the list of aforesaid voters being only provided to the ruling party candidate there is no playing field in such process in as much as the candidates of the ruling party are having the list and their candidates are contacting them to cast their votes in their favour (sic),” the complaint added.
This was followed by a further complaint on 21 February by the Congress naming a government official attached to the election cell and sought an inquiry and suspension into the person for allegedly calling up service personnel to vote in his presence for a specific party. The CEO's office finally issued a public notice in the matter.