Voters’ faith in the Election Commission has deteriorated this past election season. That does not bode well for democracy.
Elections in India are a matter of pride. Barring a small interregnum, they have been held regularly and successfully. There have been complaints about many things, but overall, the entire apparatus has moved smoothly – no small success for a country this large, diverse and complex. The voter believes in the electoral process and participates enthusiastically. A large part of this success is due to the Election Commission, a statutory body independent of executive control and interference.
In the just concluded elections, however, the Election Commission has been found wanting. It has pulled off the actual exercise without much trouble, but many of its decisions have been questionable, even troubling. The perception has grown that it is biased and, even if this may be not totally true, it is a worrying sign that voters and citizens have come to believe that the organisation has favoured the incumbent party.
Right from the announcement of the schedule of holding a seven-phase election during the peak of summer to turning a blind eye to the numerous infractions of senior BJP leaders — including the prime minister — the EC’s many actions have been baffling and problematic. The number of ‘clean chits’ issued to Narendra Modi, despite him making provocative statements and skirting very, very close to the regulations, have raised multiple eyebrows – and not just from commentators and on social media.
When Modi invoked the armed forces and appealed to first time voters to keep in mind their ‘sacrifice’ while casting their votes, it was not just a direct exploitation of the airstrikes in Balakot, which was unethical in the extreme, but also a violation of the EC’s own appeal to parties not to use the armed forces in their political propaganda.
For the BJP, however, which makes much of its nationalism — which is little more than talking about the Motherland and invoking the military as a currency to rouse patriotism — the air strikes were Godsend. The strikes were used liberally and cynically by leaders all over the country, with B.S. Yeddyurappa even saying that they would increase the BJP’s votes. The ‘we will teach Pakistan a lesson’ theme was played all over the country and Modi brought it up repeatedly, even indulging in loose talk about nuclear bombs.
The EC should have been alert and warned him off early on. It didn’t. It is possible that Modi would not have cared but at the very least the EC would have done its job and pulled him up for transgressions. Without even a fig leaf of disapproval, there was no stopping him.
It is not as if there was no dissenting opinion within the EC. Ashok Lavasa did so, issuing dissent notes repeatedly, but they were disregarded since the other two election commissioners decided to go ahead with the so-called clean chit. Lavasa’s letter, expressing his frustration at his notes not been even recorded, is now public, but the damage has been done. The elections are over and whatever the result, it has severely dented the image and credibility of the Commission, never mind what the CEC says.
Equally shocking was the EC’s decision to suddenly halt campaigning in Bengal soon after violence and vandalism erupted in Kolkata following a visit by Amit Shah. It is well known that Bengal is crucial to the BJP’s plan to increase its votes and seats, given that it is losing ground elsewhere.
In addition, the party has its eye on the assembly elections in 2021. Mamata Banerjee has so far managed to keep them in check, but the BJP’s long term play is to find ways to dislodge her and for the moment, keep her preoccupied and cut into her support. It has already become her chief threat, with the support for the Left and Congress declining.
The EC reacted swiftly to the violence, but its ban kicked in from 10 pm the next day, which allowed Modi to hold his public rally. If the EC wanted to ease tensions, it could have imposed the ban from the morning after the violence. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the decision was biased towards the BJP.
All kinds of conspiracy theories are floating around, what appears to be, blatant favouritism towards the BJP. Social media, which amplifies rumours, has provided a platform for some outrageous speculation about the CEC. Much of it may be wrong, even scandalous, but it is no secret that Modi has not been told off even once; he appears beyond the reach of even the mildest reprimand even though there were grounds to take a strong line at his transgressions.
The CEC’s weak statements about the dissent within his organisation simply do not wash; his own and, more seriously, the Commission’s credibility has been severely compromised. Add to that, the growing scepticism of the Electronic Voting Machines, which the EC has done little to dispel, and we have a situation where the entire electoral process is now viewed as flawed.
Institutional subversion has been the big story of the last five years. Whether it is educational institutions or cultural bodies, ideological apparatchiks have been placed in strategic and influential positions, severely affecting their independence. The judiciary is facing tremendous internal dissent and an unprecedented loss of reputation.
Parliament is no longer the template of debate it was and should be. As for the media, a key pillar of democracy, it has willingly submitted itself to manipulation and control, preferring to become a mouthpiece for the government rather than doing its assigned job of a watchdog.
Key personnel have also been placed in important jobs in strategic organisations, where they can be activated as the need arises. The Election Commission, for the most part, remains out of the public eye, but at the time of elections, it plays a central role. Now citizens are asking if it has done its job professionally by ensuring there is a level playing field or if it has become yet another handmaiden of the ruling party—such conjecture cannot be a good thing. People need to have faith in institutions—if that gets shaken, it will take a long time to be restored.
Restoring its reputation and instilling confidence in the public that the EC — and other organisations — remain independent and untainted by government control will not be an easy task. Reputations are built over years, decades’ their erosion can happen rapidly. It will be a long term job, but it must be done. Failure to do so will harm Indian democracy and India itself.