The Election Commission's weak-kneed bureaucratic approach has undermined the institution's credibility

Friday, 16 May 2014 - 7:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

With the long election in India at an end, the statistics will be totted up in numbers of polling booths, EVMs, poll officials, paramilitary troops deployed, voters and, of course, number of votes cast. The figures, all necessarily large in a country of a billion people, and with significant violence confined to only a few places, will add up to a job well done. The Election Commission will recede from public consciousness and claims and counter-claims against it will be forgotten as the business of forming government takes over.

Yet, more than ever, this election has proven that while the conduct of elections is vastly improved as compared with a decade ago, a more bellicose no-holds-barred politics, stratospheric increases in election spending and a revenue-hungry media demand an Election Commission that understands its mandate and has the confidence to carry it out. The Election Commission's Model Code of Conduct and the Representation of People Act are strong instruments in capable hands. This election showed how easily they are undermined by a workaday, weak-kneed bureaucratic approach.

Early in the campaign, the most loquacious of the Election Commissioners, HS Brahma, declared that election rhetoric in this campaign had been more abusive than at any time before. Certainly, no prospective prime minister has called political rivals "agents of Pakistan", and no prospective prime minister, in recent memory, has been called a mass murderer, a donkey and a fool. Apart from a making an obvious statement, the Commission did little, allowing competitive name-calling to determine how low things could fall.

In April, midway through the Election, the Commission momentarily showed that it would not tolerate violations of MCC and RPA stipulations against hate speech. It banned the BJP's Amit Shah and the SP's Azam Khan from campaigning and ordered FIRs to be lodged against them. Following a long-set convention the Election Commission accepted an apology from Shah and lifted the ban against him, fully knowing that cases filed against him under the RPA, if pursued, could take a decade to settle. For the enormity of Shah's violation, resorting to convention suggests greater concern for form over substance. Shah proved as much by resuming his campaign, and going on to offend again, calling Azamgarh — a constituency with a significant Muslim population — a base for terrorists, without so much as a raised eyebrow from the EC.

The EC also found "nothing wrong" with Narendra Modi's appeal to Hindus, playing on existing political strife around 'insiders' and 'outsider', 'refugees' and 'infiltrators' in Assam (where over 40 Muslims were killed just days earlier) and West Bengal. In the case of Shah the Election Commission took refuge in bureaucratic convention. In the case of Modi, who challenged the EC to file another complaint against him, it seemed like cowardice. For the EC had been forced to have a case registered against Modi following complaints about an open and shut case of poll violation. Modi, had violated section 126 of the RPA by addressing a (media) gathering and prominently displaying the BJP party symbol, in his own constituency on polling day.

The election administration also filed complaints against media companies that broadcast Modi's short speech, making this perhaps a first. The Commissioners have said, in defence of the ECs slow or non-existent response to events that the "electronic media explosion" has been hard to keep up with. The electronic media — television, the Internet and Twitter have all been around for long enough for a sentient EC to factor them into its decision-making. Yet, the EC permitted the BJP to launch its manifesto and to organise a massive political rally in Varanasi on the day Modi filed his nomination — on what were polling days in other parts of the country. These events were broadcast across the country through every available form of media, making a mockery of the legal prohibition against campaigning and broadcasting election matter 48 hours preceding polling.

The CEC, VS Sampath, however had a simple justification for why the EC permitted the two events on those dates: "If we start strictly implementing [the MCC] all over the country, for every poll day, virtually half of the time during the poll period there will be no election news in any of the media." The BJP and the media put off this arrangement to use again on the last day of polling, when Modi was a candidate from Varanasi, and uploaded on the Internet a message from Ahmedabad, that was broadcast across the country by private television companies.

Sampath's response is strange, even bizarre, from one mandated to implement the MCC, and uphold the RPA. It suggests the EC is unable to draw a distinction between campaign news and election news. And it also suggests that the EC — which has no say in what is broadcast or even if the media coverage during the election period is fair and balanced — seems to rate the rights of the media business rather higher than the right of the people of India to have a uniformly implemented MCC.

It's no surprise the CEC could not see what many ordinary voters could: that the large election pamphlets slipped under their doors on polling day attached to newspapers, were no different from being canvassed on their doorstep as they stepped out to vote. These election flyers should make the party that paid for the flyer, the newspaper that published and distributed it and even the poorly paid delivery man who brought it to the door — culpable of violating the ban on campaigning on polling day.

The EC's justification for why this is not a violation is unimaginatively narrow: the law prohibiting the broadcast of election material after close of campaigning does not specify newspapers, this is an unfortunate loophole to be exploited (by those with the money) until the law is changed and it does not have the power to change laws.It is not too much to expect public institutions to fulfil their mandates in the spirit in which they are given. The Election Commission, this time around, fell well short of this.

The author is an independent journalist based in New Delhi


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