Herald View: Why the Election Commission of India urgently needs a performance audit
The Commission’s attention has been drawn to malpractices and misgivings in the past. They were routinely brushed aside as of no consequence. It’s time for an audit but how and by whom is the question
Election Commission of India would like people to believe that it is an independent body immune to political influence, a perfect institution in an imperfect democracy. It does perform a thankless job and for free and fair elections in the country it is crucial that the ECI remains independent. But the last few weeks have reinforced growing suspicion that all is not well. It has been an open secret for some time that the Election Commission is unable to enforce its own guidelines. The Model Code of Conduct is often flouted with impunity but the Commission takes note of selective cases and imposes a token ban on campaigning by leaders, who then repeat the offence. Its own COVID guidelines, which have been cited for increased expenditure, the number of polling stations etc., have been defied by even the Prime Minister and the Home Minister.
The Commission has failed to prevent the Prime Minister from campaigning on polling days or the live telecast of such campaigns. Even after registering its objections and misgivings, the ECI has failed to stop the Electoral Bonds. That it has failed to reduce the role of money power in elections is there for all to see. The Commission has also failed to curb hate speech and communally loaded campaigns. To top it all, it has now failed to stop the BJP from advertising that it won all the seats in the first phase of polling in Assam. The frontpage advertisements were made to look like news. Ironically, they appeared just two days after the ECI issued a circular reiterating its ban on predictions till the last phase of polling gets over. Indeed, violating Section 126A of the RPA Act is punishable with up to two years of imprisonment and a fine. Political parties are also required to get election-related publicity material including advertisements vetted by a committee designated by the ECI. How then were these advertisements cleared? While the Commission has served a show-cause notice on the newspapers, it has maintained a studied silence on its own failure.
The Election Commission’s own rule held that a polling agent must be a registered voter in the same polling booth. But the rule has summarily been abandoned by the EC without any consultation or explanation. Worse, an audio clip surfaced in West Bengal in which two BJP leaders are heard discussing why changing the rule was important and the urgency to explain this to the Commission. The timing of the ‘change’, made long after the elections were notified, unfortunately makes the Commission appear complicit. One of the weaknesses of the Election Commission has been its utter disdain for criticism. Responding to allegations made by the West Bengal chief minister that Electronic Voting Machines are not reliable, the Commission responded with full page advertisements trumpeting the number of elections when the machines were used.
Despite persistent doubts voiced on the machines, it has not cared to explain how the VVPAT units are linked to the EVM if the latter is a standalone machine, as the Commission claims. The Commission has also failed to offer a satisfactory explanation for not counting the VVPAT slips and tallying them with the EVM count in a sufficiently large number of booths. There are questions about its partners and vendors that ECI refuses to answer. Above all its failure to avoid duplication of names and produce error-free and comprehensive voters’ lists has been glaring. The house cleaning must therefore start with an audit of the Commission’s functioning.