New Delhi: As it scrapped the election of state law and education minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama this week, the Gujarat High Court pointed out at least six discrepancies in the way votes were counted.
Among other things, the court noted violations of Election Commission (EC) procedure in the counting of postal ballots, and said the camera recording of the counting submitted was “mischievously incomplete”. It also took grim note of footage that showed Chudasama’s additional private additional secretary making multiple visits to the hall where postal ballots were counted.
Behind all this, the bench said, was an “unholy nexus” between Chudasama and returning officer Dhaval Jani, a key election official.
Justice Paresh Upadhyay of the Gujarat High Court cited these grounds to declare Chudasama’s 2017 election from the Dholka assembly constituency void.
The verdict invoked the Representation of the People Act 1951, including Section 100 of Act, which allows an election to be declared void on the ground of “corrupt practice”.
ThePrint breaks down the 144-page judgment — which Chudasama has challenged in the Supreme Court — to explain one of the most high-profile instances of election manipulation in recent Indian history.
‘Danced to the tunes of Chudasama’
The case centres on BJP leader Chudasama’s win over Congress candidate Ashwin Rathod from Gujarat’s Dholka assembly constituency in 2017.
The assembly election that year brought the BJP back to office in Gujarat, with the party winning 99 of the state’s 182 assembly seats. The Congress stood second with 77 seats.
In Dholka, Chudasama had defeated Rathod by a narrow margin of 327 votes. It was on a petition filed by Rathod against the election verdict that the Gujarat High Court took up the case.
Rathod had claimed in his petition that the postal ballots were manipulated by the defendants to sway the verdict.
The court agreed with the contention, saying Jani “obediently behaved and danced to the tunes of” Chudasama throughout the election process. He has been held guilty of misrepresenting the number of postal ballots received, including to the observer appointed to oversee the election for the constituency.
Chudasama and Jani claimed in court that 429 of the total 1,356 postal ballots received were rejected. Of the remaining 927 ballots, Rathod got 527 votes and Chudasama, 341.
But Rathod claimed that, on the day of the results, Jani informed him that they had altogether received 927 postal ballots, and none was rejected. This, Rathod said, was on the basis of an unsigned Final Result Sheet-Form 20 that Jani handed to him.
He claimed Jani gave him a second Final Result Sheet-Form 20 a few days later — this one signed and sealed — that showed 1,356 postal ballots had been received and 429 rejected.
He asserted that the second Final Result Sheet-Form 20 showed manipulated figures. The court accepted the unsigned Final Result Sheet-Form 20 as evidence, and noted that the observer was also originally informed that there were 927 postal ballots and none had been rejected.
This was the information the observer signed off on to allow the result of the election to be declared, the judgment observed.
The court noted that these 429 postal ballots were not shown to the candidates or the observer, saying this showed “manipulation of record of the election in question”. The 429 postal ballots, the court said, were illegally rejected.
How Jani manipulated the results
The Election Commission of India has laid down the procedure to be followed for counting of votes, and the instructions are listed in the ‘Hand-book for the Returning Officer’. The court found at least six discrepancies between the guidelines and the way Jani counted the votes. The discrepancies, the court said, were not mere omissions but part of a “well thought design”.
Among the major discrepancies revealed was the violation of rules that mandate postal ballots to be counted before the final two rounds of EVM counting — this is meant to ensure that the count of postal ballots is not manipulated to favour candidates after EVM results have been tallied.
“Ballots are more susceptible to human interventions and one may have motivation/inclination to accept an invalid vote or reject a valid vote, if the margin is less and within the reach of the figures of the postal ballots to be counted,” the court said.
But Jani did not follow this procedure.
The court noted that there were 19 rounds of counting for EVM votes, which means the tallying of postal ballots should have begun before the 18th round.
At the end of the 17th round, the court noted, Chudasama was leading Rathod by a margin of 3,850 votes. Even so, Jani defied procedure and only began counting postal ballots once the EVM count was concluded, by when Chudasama’s lead had shrunk to 514 votes.
This, the court said, was the “first step in the chain of assistance for the furtherance of the prospects” of Chudasama.
When 429 postal ballots were yet to be counted, Chudasama’s lead was down to 327.
“The final result could go either way. The returning officer did not take that risk,” the court observed, noting that Jani rejected the remaining ballots instead.
Chudasama & Jani didn’t want court to see missing ballots
EC rules mandate a recount or reverification if the number of postal ballots received is higher than the EVM victory margin (327 in this case). However, the court said, Jani did not do this to conceal his falsification of the record.
The court also noted that the camera recording of the counting submitted was “mischievously incomplete”, as it “abruptly” stopped when the figures of the total postal ballots received were to be written on the white board for those present in the counting hall.
The court cited the footage to point out that Chudasama’s additional private secretary made multiple unauthorised trips into the counting hall while the postal ballots were being dealt with. This, it said, could be examined as amounting to “booth capturing”, but the court did not get into this contention in detail.
The court also took exception to the fact that both Jani and Chudasama objected when the bench asked if it should see the rejected postal ballots.
Chudasama’s objection was understandable, the court said, but Jani’s wasn’t. “This shows that the returning officer was doing everything for the furtherance of the prospects of the respondent No 2 (Chudasama) even before this court in the trial. This is no less than an unholy nexus of the returning officer and the respondent No 2, which further fortifies the findings of this Court qua corrupt practice,” the court said.
The court added that the two were not only “hands in glove”, but shared a “quid pro quo” arrangement. The basis of this observation was a promotion received by Jani from the Gujarat government in October 2019 even though he had been facing EC disciplinary proceedings since March.
When the court brought up the promotion, it was informed that the decision had been withdrawn. Even so, the court noted that the department inquiry against Jani had since been stalled.
Chudasama asked the Gujarat High Court to stay the judgment while his appeal is heard by the Supreme Court, but his plea was rejected. The court also rejected Rathod’s plea to be declared the winner.
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