ECI must look at itself in the mirror
Is the EC doing its work freely, fairly and without any favour? It is facile to believe that in a country where everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, only the elections remain pristine!
Have we deluded ourselves for far too long in believing that the Election Commission of India is so robust and independent an institution that it has single-handedly upheld Indian democracy? Questioning the ECI is almost akin to blasphemy. And there is a deeply ingrained belief that it can do no wrong.
But doubts were always there, often raised by political parties which lost in elections. Wouldn’t they complain against the referee? Bad sports, weren’t they? But while we closed our eyes, we allowed the ECI to be eroded, weakened, politicised and become an extension of the executive. It is not required to answer even the Parliament and the courts treat it with a reverence that it may no longer deserve.
The just concluded elections in the five states once again served to highlight the warts and raised fresh doubts. The ECI of course has turned a deaf ear to doubts about the Electronic Voting Machines and demands that VVPAT slips be matched with the EVM count.
It has offered no explanation why it cannot complete polling in one state on a single day, especially since it is ready to hold ‘one election’ for assemblies and the Parliament.
Its word is law once elections are notified and it does not bother holding daily media briefings during elections or answer questions about low voter turnout, questions raised about postal ballots, transfer of key officials, hate speech, violation of its own guidelines, voters turned away from booths, violation of no-campaign norm etc.
Nor does it bother to explain low voter turnouts despite its attempts to facilitate eligible voters to reach the booths. The Election Commission of India cannot be faulted for not doing enough to get voters out to the polling booth. It conducts voters’ awareness programme, appoints brand ambassadors, organises contests for posters, songs, films and photographs celebrating the ‘dance of democracy’.
It also arranges for wheelchairs for the disabled at some polling booths. It sets up booths specifically for women, pink booths with balloons manned by women. At some booths it sets up ‘selfie points’ for voters to get themselves photographed. First time voters are feted and if one follows the Commission’s social media posts, the tone and the tenor is rightly celebratory. Elections in a democracy ought to be a celebration of people’s power.
And yet, polling percentage in several states, notably in Uttar Pradesh this time, remained low. Unlike smaller states with or without the suspicion of involvement of militants to coerce voters like Manipur, Goa or Uttarakhand, in Uttar Pradesh the polling percentage was marginally higher in rural areas, reports said, than in urban areas.
Prof Dilip Mandal, author, editor and scholar, points out that the Commission’s outreach appears largely confined to the middle class, urban voters.The advertisement campaigns, the models that the Commission uses, its digital platforms and the language, largely in English, rarely touch rural voters and rural dialects.
Others too have observed that the ECI’s approach is largely bureaucratic, urban-centric, biased towards the use of English and seem to have made little difference to voter awareness in vast swathes of the countryside.
During the campaign in Uttar Pradesh, a villager innocently told a TV channel that he would vote for the BJP. Asked why, he blurted out that if he did not, Modi Ji would get to know and his name would be struck off the list of beneficiaries of ‘free ration’.
Quizzed how Modi Ji would know who he had voted for, the man innocently replied that there were cameras in the booth. Everything happening in the booth was being watched in real time, he believed.
Or, take the case of voters who were sent away from polling booths and told that their votes had already been cast. Asked if they had insisted on challenging the votes cast and recording the ‘challenge’, most of them professed ignorance about the provision and the process.
Every five years, observers say, around 20% of the voters change with new voters replacing those who have passed away. Voters’ awareness therefore is an ongoing project, a work in progress. Is it possible that the awareness programme, despite the engagement of NGOs, tech giants and social media platforms like Facebook, has not been pursued as seriously as it should have been?
A simple, structural shift, could however give a fillip to voters’ awareness. If the ECI includes two local university students in each polling party and train them together, they would help spread awareness among peer groups, women homemakers and in villages faster than publicity campaigns. But that would need first an acknowledgment that voters’ education needs to be re-visited.
An annual quiz in schools and colleges on electoral law, procedures and punishment for violations can also achieve the purpose better than songs, jingles and videos; and will be a lot more cost effective as well.
In another video from Uttar Pradesh, some villagers—men, women and young first-time voters—are seen flaunting Rs.500 currency notes, which they claimed had been given to them by representatives of a political party. They were asked to stay back at home on the polling day and not visit the polling booths to cast their votes. What was more, along with the cash their fingers were also ‘inked’ by the representatives the evening before the polling, to show that they had actually cast their votes.
The video, although shared widely, did not elicit any response from the ECI. Neither the ECI’s official website nor the social media handles of ECI’s spokesperson record or address complaints received from voters, political parties etc. It provides little information on the number or nature of complaints and action taken by the Commission.
There is, therefore, nothing there to show how the ECI reacted to the video.
Was it old? Was it fake? Was it fabricated? And if the video was genuine, what steps did the ECI take? This is surely no way to ensure transparency or voters’ education.
Was the complaint even reported by the ECI’s army of ‘Observers’, Videographers and polling personnel? Was an FIR lodged and were attempts made to round up the culprits? If such steps were taken, there is nothing in the public domain to show it.
There are any number of videos which claim to be showing voters complaining that they had pressed on the symbol of hand-pump or cycle but the VVPAT showed their votes had gone to the lotus. The adamant stand of the ECI in not allowing counting of VVPAT slips with EVM counts and lack of any proof with the voters to substantiate the allegation is something that ECI refuses to address. But its ostrich-like attitude is not going to erase suspicion of foul play.
In yet another video, a village Pradhan is heard boasting that he alone had changed 200 EVM machines after polling and substituted them. While there is no reason to take him seriously, there is no reason for the ECI either not to take it seriously.
Similarly, the day before the last phase of polling in Uttar Pradesh, former psephologist, academic and activist Yogendra Yadav retweeted a video that claimed that a posse of Gujarat police had reached Varanasi on polling duty. Why would Gujarat Police come all the way to Varanasi, he wondered. A host of others shared the tweet and the video, which showed the policemen amiably chatting with a local resident, shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and reassuring an old man that Yogi would be returning to power. “Ayengetoh Yogi hi’ was his reassuring statement.
The tweet was quickly denounced by the Varanasi District magistrate as ‘fake’. No police team from Gujarat had been deployed anywhere in Varanasi on poll duty, he claimed. But reacting to the same tweet, the official handle of Mirzapur Police informed that the policeman in the video had been taken off poll duty.
Deployment of security personnel at the booths, at strongrooms where EVMs are stored before counting and at the counting centres, is increasingly becoming a tricky issue.
During the Bengal election, it was alleged that central security forces sent to the state did not have jawans from southern states or from minority communities. It was alleged that the men were carefully screened and chosen from particular states, caste groups and with affiliation to certain political groups. The allegations were never substantiated but there was no clarity offered by the Commission either.
The absence of a categorical denial that Gujarat policemen had not been deployed is again unfortunate and does not reflect well on the ECI.
Payment of Rs. 16 Crore by the Government to militant underground organisations in Manipur between February 1 and March 1 (Rs 15.70 Crore-plus on February 1 and Rs 92.65 lakhs on March 1) was not a violation of the model code of conduct, ruled ECI. The dole, argued the Union Home Ministry, was part of an ongoing scheme since 2018 under which each cadre of the militant organisations get Rs. 3000 per month as stipend ( good militants Vs bad militants?).
The complaint by the Congress that payments were due for the past one year and making the payment during the electoral process would influence voting in the hills was not accepted by the Commission. There is ample evidence to suggest that the militant organisations influenced the polling, intimidated voters and there was violence during the second round of polling in Manipur on March 5. Not surprisingly, the outfits extended their support to erstwhile BJP allies in the state.
Money and militants vitiated the election in ‘Money Pur’ (as Jairam Ramesh of the Congress quipped) but the ECI found nothing wrong in the sudden payments made ahead of the polling after a whole year. Heavens would not have fallen if the payment, at least the second tranche of Rs. 92.65 lakhs, had been paid after the polling on March 5 and not on March 1.
Banned militant organisation Kuki National Organisation issued threats, asking voters to vote for BJP or face the consequences. The militants also threatened voters and ordered them not to attend meetings of the Congress.
But the Election Commission was clearly helpless. Because despite the various complaints, it could not even ensure that militants, accused of poll violence and murder in the past, are kept under detention till the polling got over in the state.
People of Manipur should be told the Election Commission’s reasons for believing that militants would not influence polling in the state. The least it could do is to post its speaking order on its website, which today looks like an e-commerce platform.
The real problem is the Election Commission’s misplaced conviction that in our imperfect democracy it is the one flawless institution which never makes mistakes, which does not suffer from any bias and which is completely independent! That it can do no wrong.
The sooner it comes out of this mindset and sets out for a course correction, the better it would be for Indian democracy.
The least it can do is to become more transparent and open to dispel doubts and questions raised.
(The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald. Views are personal)
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)