Civilised campaigns, please

India, the world's largest democracy, can legitimately take pride in, by and large, holding free and fair elections. The Election Commission of India (ECI), which has the responsibility of conducting polls, has been trying to ensure that the use of money, muscle power, casteism, religion, criminals, biased bureaucracy, violation of code of conduct during elections, paid news, biased media, etc., are curbed and violators are brought to book.

There will, however, always be instances where unscrupulous elements will do anything to win elections. No law can ever completely eliminate such instances. They can only be minimised. It needs the combined efforts of the ECI, the political parties, the bureaucracy, media, civil society and the judiciary to ensure that use of these elements is not allowed to determine the result of elections. It is not an easy task, as the stakes for politicians and political parties are high. Have we not seen that throughout history, people have waged wars and killed innumerable others to capture political power.

Thankfully, in a democracy, the change of regime is through elections. But the end objective is the same, namely to capture political power. Only the means of achieving that end have changed. It is therefore going to be a perpetual challenge for the ECI to ensure free and fair elections.

The ECI has proposed a number of electoral reforms but these are still to be approved by the government. Reforms, which are likely to adversely affect the fate of political parties, will not be approved as all parties will oppose such reforms unanimously. It is only the judiciary and the civil society, and the media, which must exert continuous pressure on the government to approve such reforms.

There are, however, some steps which the ECI can take on its own. It is quite likely that any such measures, when enforced by the ECI, would be challenged by the affected parties. One hopes that the higher judiciary, which alone can look into any petition relating to the conduct of elections, will support the spirit behind these measures and support the ECI and not strike them down.

I would suggest the following measures, which may add to the ECI's efforts:

1. Make voters aware about the criminal record of candidates, which is given in their own affidavits at the time of filing nominations. Returning officers should be asked to disseminate this information among the voters through the local media and hoardings. These facts should also be prominently displayed at each of the polling booths in the concerned constituencies. The name and election symbol of such candidates should also be in a different colour on the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) from that of candidates who do not have such records. The ECI must apprise voters about candidates' pending criminal cases so that voters can make an informed choice while voting.

2. Political parties and candidates have been lowering the standard of public discourse during election campaigns. They are indulging in character assassination of their opponents without caring about their right to privacy, which is a fundamental right. Many of the new entrants to politics are engaging openly in such undesirable public discourse during poll campaigns. It is surprising that no one has sought legal action against the offenders. On the contrary, the affected persons also respond in an equally undesirable manner. Of late, such conduct is on the rise. Political leaders must realise that their followers are also likely to indulge in similar conduct which, if unchecked, may lead to law and order problems. The ECI must step in and rein in such elements by disqualifying candidates who vitiate elections.

3. ECI has been striving to ensure that malpractices during elections are effectively checked and those engaging in such practices are brought to book. It is increasingly using modern technology to ensure that the votes cast are secure and cannot be tampered with.

Maintaining credibility

The use of EVM is one such measure, which has also passed the test of judicial scrutiny. However, election after election, doubts are raised by some political parties about the integrity of the ECI and claims are made that EVMs are tampered with to give benefit to the ruling party at the Centre.

The ECI should take serious note of such accusations and take legal action against those defaming it. The ECI must protect its own reputation, as otherwise people will start losing faith in its ability to conduct free and fair polls.

The ECI should notify all political parties and the general public that it will take these measures while spelling out the poll schedule for any election. It should also be prompt in taking action against defaulters. Let the aggrieved party approach the courts after the elections are over. The courts will not let the ECI down if the latter has acted in good faith and to ensure free and fair elections.

The ECI must find out-of-the-box solutions to the various challenges being faced by it in discharging its responsibility of conducting free and fair polls.
One hopes that the ECI will have the necessary will and resolve to take initiatives on its own and not keep waiting for political parties to come around to introduce reforms.

If the ECI continues to press for other electoral reforms as well, it will get the fullest support from the judiciary, the media and the civil society. I am not sure whether it will receive support from politicians and political parties, though.

(The writer is former additional chief secretary, Government of Karnataka)

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