Coming out of the shadow of the pandemic, 2022, albeit late, would be a year when the city would finally elect its civic representatives again. Or so it was hoped. Meanwhile, the voters’ data theft scandal that rocked the city has cast a long shadow of doubt on the electoral rolls.
The Karnataka High Court had recently set a deadline of December 31 to hold the civic polls, but that won’t happen as the State government has now been granted time till March 31 to fix the reservation roster for the newly created 243 wards by the Supreme Court. There is also a petition challenging the delimitation of these wards pending before the Division Bench of the High Court.
Even as former councillors, whose term ended in September 2020, waged a legal battle to ensure civic elections, the city MLAs cutting across party lines seem to have consensus to thwart their efforts and push the civic elections to beyond Assembly polls scheduled to be held in April-May 2023.
“Civic polls so close before Assembly polls are a nuisance to MLAs and MLAs ticket aspirants. Every ward has two to three aspirants for councillor tickets from both the BJP and the Congress. Holding civic polls now will only brew discontent and divert a lot of funds earmarked for the Assembly polls,” a senior city MLA from the Congress said. A senior BJP MLA concurred: “It is not just city MLAs who are holding back civic polls; taluk and zilla panchayat elections are also being delayed for similar reasons.” In fact, it is BJP MLA Satish Reddy who questioned the delimitation of 243 wards in the Karnataka High Court now.
The ruling BJP that has staked even its Central leadership in the civic polls of Hyderabad and Delhi recently, seems to not be keen on betting its stakes in Bengaluru so close to the Assembly polls, where they face anti-incumbency. “Even a lukewarm performance in BBMP, taluk, and zilla panchayat elections will rob the momentum for the party going to Assembly polls,” said a senior party strategist.
With the odds stacked against them so hard, it is likely that the civic polls in the city, taluk and zilla panchayat polls in the State will be held in the second half of 2023, under a new State government. If held then, the city would have gone without an elected council for three years, including during the punishing second wave of the pandemic when the absence of councillors was acutely felt.
The voter data theft scandal in which a private organisation, Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust, allegedly linked to a politician of the ruling party, was tasked with Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme, allegedly impersonated civic officials and stole voters’ data, including their political preferences. Two IAS officers have been suspended and several Revenue Officers of BBMP suspended and arrested by the police in connection with the case, apart from the office-bearers of the organisation.
As the scandal broke in November 2022, it has now put a question mark over the sanctity of electoral rolls in the city, especially as it has now come out that Chilume Trust was entrusted with various activities like linking voter ID and Aadhaar card, which was not supposed to be outsourced. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has also conceded the validity of these questions, when it asked for a thorough cross verification of all deletions and additions in the three Assembly constituencies – Shivajinagar, Mahadevapura, and Chickpet. This is based on anecdotal evidence that forged BBMP ID cards were found in these constituencies.
Questions have been raised over how the probe can be restricted to three constituencies when reportedly Chilume Trust had an order from the BBMP to carry out SVEEP activities in all 28 Assembly constituencies across the city. A total of 6.84 lakh entries were deleted and 3.07 lakh new entries added during Special Summary Revision-2022. The Opposition Congress has demanded a cross verification of the entire electoral rolls in the city and has launched a private initiative by the party to do so.