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When Interpretation Of ‘Text Mode Document’ Turned Fate Of Kamal Nath’s Plea In MP Polls Case [Read Judgment]

“What is text mode document?” – this was the question which determined the fate of Kamal Nath’s plea for directions to Election Commission of India in the impending Madhya Pradesh assembly polls.

Kamal Nath demanded that ECI should furnish the soft copy of draft electoral roll in ‘searchable text form’. The copies furnished by the ECI to the political parties, and also uploaded in the website were scanned images of draft electoral roll, which had no search option. It was contended that political parties should be provided voter list in text format so that they are in a position to electronically scan the same and find out whether there are any duplicate or fake voters in the voter list prepared by the ECI.

Reliance was placed on  Clause 11.2.2.2 of Chapter XI of the Election Manual 2016 which reads as under:
“ Putting draft roll on website:- Additionally, the draft roll shall be put in public domain, at Chief Electoral Officer’s website, in a PDF format on the same day. The draft roll shall be put on website in a text mode and no photographs would appear against the elector’s details. Instead it would indicate in the box meant for the photograph of elector whether the photograph is available or not.”

Based on the word ‘text mode’ in the said clause, it was contended that the document should be in searchable format. The entire dispute hinged upon the meaning that is to be assigned to ‘text mode’.

The ECI contended that ‘text mode’ does not mean ‘text format’, and   that prescription in the aforesaid clause would mean that it should contain only the text of the elector’s details such as his name, address, age, etc. and not his/her photograph.  The use of the phrase ‘text mode’ in Clause 11.2.2.2 of the Election Manual only means that the draft electoral roll put up on the Chief Electoral Officer’s website shall onlycontain ‘text’ of the elector’s details and not his/her ‘photographs/pictures/pictorial content’. It was also explained that every PDF document, whether it is a searchable or nonsearchable/Image PDF and which contains any text content in a ‘Text Mode’ is PDF in that sense. It was further submitted that there is nothing called a ‘Text Mode’ format of a PDF document. The ECI has taken a conscious decision not to give copies of these voter list to the political parties in scannable text mode keeping in view the issue of privacy of voters

The Division Bench of Justice A K Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan found force in the submission of the ECI. “The clause nowhere says that the draft electoral roll has to be put up on the Chief Electoral Officer’s website in a ‘searchable PDF’. Therefore, the petitioner cannot claim, as a right, that the draft electoral roll should be placed on the website in a ‘searchable mode’. It has only to be in ‘text mode’ and it is so provided”

It was also noted that the the absence of the words ‘search’ in Clause 11.2.2.2 of the Election Manual would make all the difference. It was held that the Clause does not entitle the petitioner to get the draft electoral roll in the text mode which is searchable as well viz. in ‘full text search’ form

The bench also endorsed the reason cited by ECI that document was not supplied in searchable format to protect privacy of citizens. “Issues of privacy of voters are involved and the move of ECI is aimed at prevention of voter profiling and data mining”, observed the bench.

The other prayer in the petition was for a direction to conduct random verification of 10% of the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail(VVPAT). However, the bench did not consider this prayer as the SC had occasion to consider similar plea last year in Prakash Joshi v Election Commission of India. There, the SC bench headed by the then CJI Dipak Misra noted the submission of ECI that guidelines were being formulated for verificaiton of VVPAT, and in that view of the matter the Court refrained from issuing any positive directions.

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