THE Election Commission performs a vital role in the parliamentary democratic system in India. The Commission is the body authorised by the Constitution to conduct free and fair elections. Article 324 (1) of the Constitution empowers the Commission with: “The superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every state…”.
The Commission has, over the last seven decades, fulfilled this responsibility in a manner which has enhanced the credibility of the electoral system in India. The Commission has been conducting the gigantic exercise of parliamentary and legislative elections with punctuality, regularity and efficiency.
In the conduct of free and fair elections, the Commission has by and large a creditable record, though there have been lapses and shortcomings on various occasions. Some of these shortcomings cannot be wholly attributable to the Commission, given the type of imperfect bureaucratic system that it has to rely upon. At times, the Commission has had to contend with pressures exercised by the government of the day and the ruling party. Here too, with some exceptions, the Commission has worked within the constitutional framework.
It is, therefore, a matter of concern that many questions are being raised critical of the way the Commission is conducting the 17th Lok Sabha election.
The Commission is expected to enforce the model code of conduct (MCC), take particular care to see that the ruling party does not misuse the official machinery, ensure a level playing field for all parties and take steps to curb any practice such as use of money power to vitiate elections.
The three-member Commission headed by Chief Election Commissioner, Sunil Arora, has been found wanting on implementing some of the above tasks. The most common complaint concerns the enforcement of the MCC, particularly with regard to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Narendra Modi has been in the election campaign making speeches, which repeatedly violate the code of conduct. He has accused the Congress party, in a speech, of insulting Hindus and declared that the people would punish them for it in the election. He has again and again appealed for votes on the basis of the air strike at Balakot and in the name of the martyrs of Pulwama. His invocation of the armed forces actions and his taking credit for it have become the leitmotif of his speeches.
Despite several complaints lodged with the Election Commission regarding violation of the MCC dating from April 2, the Commission has not taken cognizance of these complaints and acted upon them.
When the Supreme Court asked what the Commission was doing regarding hate campaigns and speeches on April 15, the Commission acted against Adityanath, Mayawati, Azam Khan and Maneka Gandhi prohibiting them from campaigning ranging from two to three days. But no action was taken against Narendra Modi. In the same meeting, the Commission decided to prohibit the Gujarat BJP president, Vaghani, from campaigning for three days for making intemperate speeches. The only problem is that the action has been announced after the Gujarat polls were over on April 23.
It is only when the petition filed by a Congress MP in the Supreme Court regarding the Commission’s inaction on Modi’s violations of the MCC that the Commission held a sitting for the first time on April 30 and disposed off the complaint about his Wardha speech. The Commission found it was not in violation of the MCC, or, the Representation of the People Act.
The Commission had steadfastly refused to take up the complaint regarding the misuse of the armed forces in the campaign by Narendra Modi, even though it goes against the specific direction of the Commission that the role of the armed forces should not be brought into the election campaign. Since making such a reference in his speech at Latur on April 9, four phases of polling are over and, by its inaction, the EC gave Modi a free run. Finally, on May 1, the Commission dealt with the complaint and ruled that Modi had not violated any code as he had not directly asked for votes for his party or himself. This clearance will only embolden the likes of Amit Shah who has been shamelessly extolling Modi’s use of the armed forces.
The Election Commission has also shown itself to be visibly reluctant in taking a firm stand against the misdeeds of the ruling party, the BJP, at the centre and the states. In Tripura where the polling for Tripura West Parliamentary Constituency was held on April 11, the election was marred by large-scale rigging, capturing of booths, disabling of CCTV cameras and driving away of polling agents of the opposition parties and voters. The CPI(M) had demanded re-poll in 846 polling booths providing adequate evidence and documentation to prove its case. However, three weeks after the polling, no action has been taken. It is now reported that the Commission will order re-poll in only a fraction of the effected booths, despite the fact that all the enquiries made by the Commission proved large-scale irregularities. The only inference that can be drawn is that the Commission does not want to displease the BJP which is also the ruling party in the state.
This can be contrasted to the prompt manner in which the Vellore Lok Sabha seat in Tamil Nadu was countermanded on the plea that a large sum of money was found in a candidate’s house. The difference in this case was that the candidate concerned belonged to the opposition DMK.
The perception which has grown that the Commission cannot stand up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP has damaged the credibility of the institution. We have seen how, in the five-year term of the Modi government, institution after institution has been either subject to assault, or, eroded from within. None of the constitutional bodies have been spared. Sadly, the Election Commission, with its proud record as the custodian of the integrity of the electoral system, has now become the latest victim.
This state of affairs highlights the need to reform the Election Commission to ensure its integrity and to insulate it from the corroding influence of the executive and the ruling party. The CPI(M) and other democratic forces have demanded such reforms. The CPI(M) in its election manifesto has stated that the present system of appointment of the election commissioners solely by the executive, must change. Instead, members of the EC should be appointed by the president on the advice of a committee consisting of the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and chief justice of Supreme Court. Further, election commissioners must be debarred from enjoying any office after their retirement either under the government, or, as a governor, or, member of a legislature.
The Election Commission is too important an institution to be left to the mercy of the executive.
Prakash Karat is Member, Polit Bureau CPI(M).