EC must reclaim its credibility as an autonomous body

Last Updated: Sat, Apr 27, 2019 11:35 hrs
Election Commission of India

As the world’s largest democracy goes to the polls, the autonomous authoritative body in charge of carrying out this enormous democratic exercise, the Election Commission (EC) has come under the spotlight for its increased roles and responsibilities. Not only are they tasked with carrying out various phases of polling at various locations, they have had to adapt to the changing nature of electoral campaigning and candidates. Article 324 of the constitution gives the commission the powers of “superintendence, direction and control” of elections. A free fair election is fundamental to a democracy. A Livemint editorial pointed out the importance of the EC –

The EC will always be exposed to political pressure. More worryingly, campaign speeches that invoke religious sentiments, a clear violation of the code, have been made with increasing frequency. If people lose faith in the EC’s ability to keep politicians from flouting norms, the fairness of elections will come under doubt.

The credibility of the EC has been criticised by political parties before. Last year, the EC invited 11 of its former chiefs to help form a strategy to deal with challenges. This was prior to the assembly polls. In the weeks leading up to this years’ polls, the EC put out a model code of conduct to be followed by parties and candidates. The role of the EC is to also hand out punishments to those who violate these rules.

In the run up these elections, there has been considerable pressure put on the EC. Most recently is the controversy surrounding NaMo TV which was carried by DTH platforms, airing speeches by the Prime Minister. The EC did action against the release of a biopic of Modi ordering the film to be released only after the final phase of polling is completed.

The EC seems to be working overtime in clamping down on those who violate the code of conduct. It has handed out penalties to Yogi Adityanath, Mayawati, Maneka Gandhi and Azam Khan from campaigning for a period of 48 to 72 hours. Earlier this month, prior to the polls, 66 former civil servants wrote to the President Ram Nath Kovind expressing concern over the functioning and independence of the EC. A fair number of the signatories are former IPS and IAS officers. An example they cited was NaMo TV being launched across DTH platforms and the rhetoric from Yogi Adityanath. The letter read in part, “…we are deeply concerned about the weak-kneed conduct of the ECI, which has reduced the credibility of this constitutional body to an all-time low.”

In the aftermath of the Pulwama attacks and the reaction by India, the Prime Minister, his surrogates and allies have used that as an opportunity to galvanise voters in the spirit of supporting the troops equaling supporting the incumbent government. The EC hasn’t yet responded to the complaints made by many against the Prime Minister for using the strike on Balakot in his poll pitches. The Deccan Herald editorial called the inaction by the EC as weak and offered its criticism –

The Election Commission’s portal on code violations does not show any complaint against the prime minister. All this has gone to confirm that while the prime minister seems to consider himself above the code of conduct, the Election Commission, too, is treating him as such.

The combination of the examples mentioned above, with others, there seems to be an apathetic view from the EC when it comes to the Prime Minister in particular. The delay in action is worrisome and plays into a narrative of favoritism. Invoking the armed forces is a tempting play for any politician, but it’s not an ethical one; and based on the code of conduct issued by the EC, any divisive issue shouldn’t be used. The Hindu editorial criticises the EC for its inaction on other matters involving other matters for which no action has been taken including the continual raids on opposition parties and the partisanship of Doordarshan -

The EC is vested with powers to ensure a free and fair election. While responding to new situations by changing the legal architecture is essential, the EC needs to build upon a fundamental premise of the rule of law, which is, ‘be you ever so high, the law is always above you.

Former head of the Election Commission, SY Quraishi, in excerpts from a panel discussion said it’s unfortunate that the EC hasn’t acted more forcefully saying in part, “It is a pity that we needed the Supreme Court to remind the EC of powers that it always had. The EC is partly responsible because of delays. Had it acted promptly, it would not be in the dock.”

The person who heads the EC is appointed by the government in charge. This, according to Quraishi may not be right approach. He says, “A collegium system of appointment should be considered.” On the model code of conduct, he’s against it being enacted into a law. He also said on the face of it, a political party or leader having a channel isn’t a problem, but the expenditure on publicity should be accounted for. He cited the example of politicians in the south having outlets that are owed by them or friends/family members.

The Economist, in its Democracy Index 2018, kept India in the category of a flawed democracy; faring badly on electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. It’s often said in sports, that the referee shouldn’t be the talking point at the end of the game, but those participating should be aware of their presence. The appearance of bias is dangerous enough in such a large and complicated democracy like India. The EC needs to do all it can in to distance itself from that.