Herald View: Making a mockery of ‘free and fair’ elections

The ECI has stonewalled the Opposition, refusing for the past several months to meet a delegation of opposition leaders to discuss their concerns about the electoral process

Nirvachan Sadan, the office of the Election Commission of India (photo: IANS)
Nirvachan Sadan, the office of the Election Commission of India (photo: IANS)

Herald View

There was a time when India’s election exercise was the envy of the democratic world. The Election Commission of India, which is vested with the responsibility to conduct this exercise in a ‘free and fair’ manner, was justifiably held in high esteem.

For sheer scale, the number of voters, the challenges involved in making it possible for every eligible voter to have the opportunity to cast their vote, there is nothing like this so-called ‘dance of Indian democracy’.

It’s truly an awe-inspiring exercise, and there was a time—not so long ago in calendar years but seemingly past a very distant horizon—when we were proud of our Election Commission for the assurance with which it could pull it off.

Today, the ECI is still in charge of the logistics of this great election exercise, but it has completely abdicated its moral authority as a referee of that exercise. So much so, that even in the brutally self-serving global geopolitics of our times, world powers have been constrained to express their grave reservations about the sanctity of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

After toying with the ECI by other means, the Modi government even managed to ram through Parliament a new law late last year, giving itself the power to effectively appoint election commissioners of its own choice. That this makes the ECI practically a government department—as opposed to the non-partisan referee it is supposed to be—is clear to anyone with a functioning brain, but there we are.

In ambivalent words that let the ruling party get away with this, the Supreme Court observed: “At this stage, we cannot stay the legislation; it will only lead to chaos and uncertainty.” But not staying that law, your learned lordships, can do far worse—it can change the election results, alter the course of this democracy and lead us to a dark place where the Constitution you always invoke and often uphold will be mangled beyond recognition.

Remember also that this is a government that never stopped questioning the appointment of judges by judges. Like a pliant underling, the Election Commission—only as good, after all, as the people who serve on it—has thought better than to resist the ruling party’s onslaught.

It didn’t even see the need to save face and entertain any dissent from the Opposition; on the contrary, it stonewalled the Opposition, refusing, for the past several months, to meet a delegation of opposition leaders to discuss their concerns about the electoral process.

It even went back on its own previous objections to the electoral bonds scheme and did a somersault in the Supreme Court, which belatedly declared the scheme unconstitutional in February 2024.

It has failed its constitutional mandate to evolve a political and popular consensus on the use of EVMs (electronic voting machines), which have aroused enough suspicion to merit a thorough rebuttal if indeed EVMs cannot be manipulated, as the Commission claims.

Fact is, EVMs have been repeatedly shown to be manipulable and the voters’ trust in these machines is thoroughly undermined. On the basis of a plea to count all VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) slips and match them with the EVM count, the Supreme Court, on 1 April, has served notice on the ECI. Where this may lead is anyone’s guess, but chances are the Commission will play for time.

The ECI surely knows that the practice of allowing voters to verify voter slips before putting them in the ballot box is common in European countries. It has earlier argued that counting VVPAT slips will delay the declaration of results. The petitioners had argued that if more officers were deployed for counting in each assembly constituency, a comprehensive VVPAT verification can be done in 5–6 hours.

The bigger irony is that the 2024 Lok Sabha elections are scheduled to be held in seven phases over 45 days! If voters in the first phase must wait for 45-plus days to know the results, surely voters in the last phase can wait for more than two days? (The last day of election is 1 June and counting slated for 4 June.)

All of this tells you something about the kind of elections we fear this might be. On paper, the Election Commission of India has the authority to direct the government to restrain its investigative agencies from hounding opposition leaders till the elections are over.

In theory, the Commission should ensure adherence to the Model Code of Conduct, and must apply the same standards to the ruling party and the Opposition. It cannot—or should not—target the Opposition while going lax on the ruling party. What are you willing to bet the Election Commission of India will respect this mandate?

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