POLITICS
07/05/2019 12:42 PM IST | Updated 07/05/2019 6:53 PM IST

Inside A Congress “War Room” On Polling Day In Rajasthan

The Congress is finally getting its act together after being outgunned, outspent and out-campaigned by the wealthier and better organised BJP for years. But will this be enough?

Pavan Dahat/HuffPost India
Congress's War Room in Jaipur on the day of polling on May 6, 2019

JAIPUR, Rajasthan — At 7.30 am on May 6, when Congress worker Ashok Kumar Mill heard that “fake” voters were voting in booth number 8 in the Fatehpur segment of the Jhunjhunu Lok Sabha seat, he quickly dialled 141-663-0565.

The number connected Mill with a call centre that heard his complaint and logged it on a Google document shared with a centralised polling-booth Congress “war room” hundreds of kilometres away in Jaipur, who alerted a local Congress unit back in Jhunjhunu.

Minutes after Mill made his call, a group of Congress workers arrived, policemen in tow, and demanded that booth officials verify the identity of every voter lined up outside the booth.

“There was no fake voting after that,” Mill said.

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Outgunned, outspent and out-campaigned by the wealthier and better organised Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s grand old party — the Indian National Congress — is finally getting its act together. Here in Rajasthan, the party has set up a centralised control centre to keep tabs on voting in far-flung booths across one of India’s biggest states by land area, at a time when opposition parties — including the Congress — have repeatedly raised concerns about the conduct of the Election Commission of India.

“The Election Commission is functioning in a manner that raises a lot of questions,” senior Congressman and former Union Law Minister Kapil Sibal told HuffPost India earlier this week. “Their actions have fallen far short of how people expect an election to be conducted.”

To combat this perceived bias, a group of 8 Congress workers from Maharashtra led by the Congress’s general secretary in charge of Rajasthan, Avinash Pande, who is from Maharashtra himself, have camped out in Jaipur for the past month to coordinate the party’s efforts to get out the vote on polling day.

The war room was first tried out in the 2018 Rajasthan assembly election when the Congress beat the incumbent BJP state government led by Vasundhara Raje Scindia. HuffPost India and other media organisations were granted access to observe the war room at work.

Rajasthan, the only state where the Congress has set up such a system, is pivotal for both the Congress and the BJP in 2019. In 2014, the BJP swept all 25 seats en route to a landslide national win. This time, the Congress is hoping to pick up seats in a state where the local chapter has been consumed by rivalries and the BJP retains significant support.

Congress's War Room head Jinda Sandbhor explaining its working to former Finance minister P. Chidambaram in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Inside the voting war room

The Congress voting-day war room functions out of a large hall on the first floor of the party state headquarters in Jaipur, where 40 lawyers, chartered accountants, software engineers and party workers, and supporters sit arrayed at four long tables topped with computers.

The first table was occupied by the team led by 32-year-old former researcher Jinda Sandbhor and two young Congress leaders from Nagpur, Prafulla Gudadhe Patil and Vijay Saratkar, who monitored a series of leads as they streamed in from the complaints call-centre. The complaints ranged from the lack of drinking water at a particular booth to grave complaints like alleged booth capturing, an attack on one party’s workers by another party’s workers, and attempts to intimidate voters.

The second bench was occupied by 12 Congress leaders who were working as coordinators for each Lok Sabha seat that was going to poll on Monday.

Twelve lawyers sat on the third bench along with some chartered accountants to quickly respond to technical complaints regarding election norms and the code of conduct, while the fourth bench belonged Rajasthan Congress Committee Vice President Mumtaj Masih where Pande kept visiting throughout the day.

Every table had four to six computers where a google sheet was open which showed the complaints which were being received from various booth level workers of the Congress party from the 12 seats that were witnessing voting on May 6.

VVPAT Failure

At 8.22 am, Sandbhor ran from the complaints desk to the coordinators’ bench.

“Booth number 142 in Jayal seat is reporting that the VVPAT chits are showing wrong party symbol,” he said.  “Lotus chits are coming even after pressing the button in front of Congress’s symbol ’Hand.”

HuffPost India could not verify the authenticity of this complaint.

The Rajasthan Congress committee’s secretary Mahesh Sharma picked up his phone and called the collector of the district from where the complaint was received.

A lawyer from the legal bench drafted an email complaint to the Election Commission of India, the Chief Election Officer of Rajasthan state, and the district magistrate who is usually the returning officer for elections.

Half an hour later, the booth worker from Jayal told this war room that this complaint had been resolved. It was marked resolved on the Google sheet and the war room shifted its focus on the next complaint.

“The idea is to keep the election machinery and administration on their toes,” Pande, the Congress General Secretary, said. “This helps us get to every minute detail of what really is happening on the ground. We can pressurise the election authorities to rectify it immediately.”

The mechanism is simple. The booth workers call the call centre helpline with problems. The call centre updates the problem on a Google sheet with the name of the complainant, details of the area and constituency and the nature of the complaint.

The idea is to keep the election machinery and administration on their toes

The war room picks these complaints and makes sure even the smallest complaint is raised with the authorities and election officials.

“For smaller complaints we make calls,” said Sadanand Naik, a software engineer from Pune who has come from Maharashtra to help out. “For serious complaints, we call and email all the authorities from the election commission of India to the lowest election officer involved in the process of election.”

Pavan Dahat/HuffPost India
The team of youngsters from Maharashtra along with Congress general secretary Avinash Pande

Booth-level training

The 8 person Congress team from Maharashtra has also spent a lot of time training close to 1000 booth-level polling agents on the intricacies of the election process.

“A polling agent should know his rights,” said Amar Jadhav, a doctor from Buldhana district of Maharashtra, volunteering his time. “Even a difference of 100 votes on each booth can lose you an election.”

Sushil Sharma, a lawyer who heads the Congress’s legal department in the state and heads the legal bench in this war room, said the war room had streamlined the party’s responses.

“Before 2018 assembly elections, eight to ten Congress leaders would sit in the party office on the polling day to address various complaints but that system was not as effective as this,” Sharma said. All these lawyers from the Congress’s legal cell have been deputed here today because we lawyers are aware of procedures and rules. The election officials cannot misguide us.”

Masih said the system meant polling agents no longer felt as if they were fighting this election by themselves.

“Earlier, the booth workers would run from pillar to post to resolve the issue on the polling booth. They had to manage everything at their own level without any backing,” Masih said. “It was like only our booth workers would fight the election at booth level only on their own.”

While the war room is certainly impressive, it alone cannot win the elections. In Rajasthan, the Congress has been dogged by reports of infighting amongst the party rank and file. Come May 23, the Rajasthan results are likely to play a key role in deciding who forms the government in Delhi.