In the run up to the 2023 Assembly polls, an electoral voter data ‘theft’ scandal with alleged links to the ruling BJP in Bengaluru has given rise to the alarming spectre of possible targeted voter suppression. Even as the government tries to brazen it out, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has ordered a review of the changes made to the electoral rolls in three Assembly constituencies, where there is prima facie evidence of data ‘theft’. The Congress party and the Citizens’ Commission on Elections have called for an audit of electoral rolls across the city.
It is a common practice to rope in NGOs to carry out Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) campaigns every year. The Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust was roped in for SVEEP activities by the city’s civic body, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), from 2017. It has now been revealed that the founders also run a political consultancy firm. They are also allegedly linked to a minister in the BJP government.
Following a complaint by a sub-contractor in September, it came to light that contract employees of Chilume were impersonating booth-level officers and collecting voter data. They were also allegedly collecting information on perceptions of the State government. The police estimate that over 500 contract employees were thus employed. On November 4, BBMP cancelled permission to Chilume to carry out SVEEP activities.
It has now emerged that revenue officers with the city’s civic body, tasked with electoral roll revision in the city, had entrusted Chilume with this responsibility as well as with the task of linking Aadhar cards with voter IDs. These tasks cannot be outsourced, as per ECI norms. Based on a complaint by the BBMP, the city police are now probing the scandal and have arrested four revenue officers of the civic body for allegedly colluding with Chilume. The ECI has suspended two IAS officers who were overseeing electoral roll revision in the three Assembly constituencies where fake ID cards claiming that representatives of Chilume Trust were booth-level officers were found. The bureaucrats allege that they are being made scapegoats.
The Congress has demanded that Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, who holds charge of Bengaluru Development, resign. Mr. Bommai, on the other hand, has claimed credit for cancelling permission to the Trust to carry out SVEEP activities after irregularities came to light. He has alleged that this is a ‘Congress scam’, as the NGO was first roped in by the civic body during the Congress regime. He announced that he had ordered a probe into electoral roll revision in the city from 2013, when the Congress took office. But the next day, Manoj Kumar Meena, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Karnataka, issued a statement that electoral roll revision and all matters related to the conduct of elections were the sole domain of the ECI and no government could order a probe into the matter. The CEO ordered a probe by the Regional Commissioner of the Bengaluru Zone, which is under way.
Over 6.84 lakh entries were deleted and 3.07 lakh new entries added to the final electoral roll of 2022 between January 1 and October 30, 2022, in Bengaluru. The ECI has extended the period of claims and objections under the Special Summary Revision by 15 days, and appealed to voters to check their names and submit objections, if any. It directed the CEO, Karnataka, to give the entire lists to all the political parties to help them file objections. It has ordered a “100% check of deletions and additions in electoral rolls in the three Assembly constituencies. As many as 64,286 entries have been deleted in the three constituencies.
However, many have questioned the move to limit the CEO probe to the three Assembly constituencies . Only a credible probe can establish whether electoral data theft and compromise of electoral rolls is limited to these three constituencies alone. Meanwhile, the police claim they are trying to follow the money trail in Chilume Trust to identify the politicians who may have ordered the surveys and benefitted from the data.
The Trust had been feeding voter data into a private app, Digital Sameeksha, which the police are now reviewing. However, police officers well versed with cybercrime probes say that it is impossible to recover all the possible copies of the data. With the winter session of Karnataka’s legislature set to begin, the alleged scam is expected to provide fodder to the Congress for its attack on the BJP.