Restore public trust in EC

Restore public trust in EC

The worst casualty of the 17th Lok Sabha elections which concluded on Sunday is Election Commission of India (ECI), which is vested with the responsibility and powers for the superintendence, direction and control of elections. It has lost its credibility, and its independence has come to be seriously questioned. The conduct of free and fair elections is the life breath of democracy and it is the commission’s task not only to hold them but to hold them in a free and fair manner and, very importantly, be seen as doing so. The commission has failed in this, and this has been demonstrably seen in the many wrong decisions of the commission on matters and disputes related to the conduct of elections and the disagreements even within the commission over these decisions. A member of the commission, Ashok Lavasa, has himself protested to the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora and the third member Sushil Chandra that his dissenting views on some of the panel’s decisions were not recorded. These decisions related to complaints about the violation of the model code of conduct by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. The fact that one member of the commission, whose powers are equal to those of the others, has chosen to protest and recuse himself from its meetings is a comment on the functioning of the commission. The CEC’s response to it is unconvincing, and poor in reasoning, spelling and grammar.   

From the day of the announcement of the election schedule on March 10 to the curtailment of the campaign period for the last phase of polling in West Bengal on May 14, many decisions of the commission were wrong, and invited controversy and criticism. These decisions lacked fairness and neutrality, and were clearly seen to be biased in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. There was no logistical or any other kind of justification for extending the poll process for over two months in seven phases. This was probably done to give Modi, who is the BJP’s main campaigner, enough time to campaign in all parts of the country. This was wrong and unfair, and it put pressure on other parties, especially those with less resources than the BJP. 

The most blatant sign of partisanship was in the handling of the charges of violation of the model conduct against Modi and Amit Shah. In all the 11 complaints about violation of the code of conduct filed against Modi, EC gave him clean chit, though it was clear to an impartial observer that he was guilty. It sat on the complaints for long, giving lame excuses for the delay, and had to be prompted by the Supreme Court to take a decision. The commission dismissed a complaint against Modi’s broadcast to the nation, taking credit for an anti-satellite missile test by the DRDO, as no violation. Modi’s call to first time voters to cast their vote in the name of Pulwama and Balakot and his invocation of Hindu religious sentiment by deriding Rahul Gandhi for contesting from Wayanad were obvious violations of the code. The use of religion and the name of the armed forces in campaigns is certainly a violation of the code but the commission ruled otherwise. On all the complaints, it refused to put on record the dissenting view of Ashok Lavasa, perhaps to make it out that the ruling was unanimous. While the commission warned, reprimanded or took action against some other leaders for violation of the code, Modi and Amit Shah got special treatment and were spared, though their violations were of the same degree or kind or were even worse.

On April 16, the commission suspended a Karnataka cadre IAS officer who was on duty as a general election observer in Odisha for checking the prime minister’s helicopter, claiming that its guidelines stipulated that the PM’s vehicles cannot be checked. But there is no such rule. Last week’s curtailment of campaign period in West Bengal after violence during Amit Shah’s road show was also controversial. The commission’s  power to stop the campaign is disputed. In any case, by not stopping the campaign immediately, it was seen to have accommodated Modi by allowing him to hold his election rallies the next day. 

These are not stray cases, and there is a consistent pattern in the favours shown by the commission to the BJP and Modi. Last year, it had delayed the announcement of assembly elections in Rajasthan and the year before in Gujarat allegedly to enable Modi to make announcements of pre-poll sops to the voters.

The commission’s functioning has been a matter of serious concern, as it is seen to have failed consistently in its constitutional duty to conduct free and fair elections and to treat all parties, leaders and campaigners equally, giving them a level playing field.

When the umpire, who should be neutral, becomes partisan, the players, onlookers and others lose trust and confidence, and may even lose their interest in the game. It is independent institutions which support, sustain and guard democracy. India’s Election Commission was one such institution which had gained public confidence, credibility and a moral stature that went beyond its legal powers. That was through strict adherence to legal and constitutional principles and duties, ability to withstand external pressures, neutral  and impartial functioning and firm and efficient handling of issues. That image has taken a beating and the reputation is at stake now. The commission has let down the people, and the Constitution. A compromised Election Commission weakens and undermines democracy, which is facing challenges in other ways too. The slide needs to be stopped, the commission should be strengthened and the public trust in it should be restored.