How will Sunil Arora be remembered as the Chief Election Commissioner ?
While most political observers are sanguine that the former CEC who demitted office this week will be rewarded soon with a plum political appointment, his tenure as CEC was mired in controversies
The parting shot of outgoing Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, whose political credentials and alleged bias in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party the BJP have been a subject matter of much discussion and speculation throughout 2018 till his last day in office, was in preventing Trinamul Congress (TMC) supremo and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is from campaigning for the fifth phase of polls due on April 17. Of course the next day, with Arora having demitted office, the new Chief Election Commissioner, Sushil Chandra, responding to the all-round condemnation of the EC act, reduced the ban period to 24 hours.
Since the polling for the 45 constituencies, across six districts of North 24 Parganas is scheduled for April 17, the campaign has to end by 5.30 pm on Thursday, April 15. On April 12, the Election Commission led by Arora issued orders banning Mamata from campaigning for the next 72 hours, meaning all of April 13, 14 and 15, period. Mamata’s crime in the eyes of the Chief Election Commissioner Arora: She alleged that the CAPF men who opened fire killing four men in the fourth phase of polling held on April 10, did this at the behest of Union Home Minister Amit Shah who controls the Central police force. The Election Commission took exception to this and on April 12 issued orders banning her from campaigning for next 72 hours. Significantly, Mamata Banerjee was not alone in questioning the credibility of the Central forces evidently working under the command of the Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the second most important campaigner and a pronounced polariser in this and previous elections after Prime Minister Modi. CPM state leader Mohmmad Salim, leading the rival Left Front campaign in these elections endorsed Mamata’s charge of the Central forces targeting the Muslim boys of Sitalkuchi at the instance of the communally biased BJP led Central government. The Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi also raised questions about the police firing on voters at Sitalkuchi. But why was Mamata alone singled out? The EC had also not reacted till reports last came in, to a blatantly communal statement by main BJP leaders who justified Police firing in Cooch Beehar.
Return to April 2, the Election Commission received a complaint from the Assam opposition parties that Assam’s Health Minister and BJP strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma had publicly threatened political rival Bodoland People's Front chief Hagrama Mohilary and taking cognizance of this it banned Sarma from campaigning for next 48 hours. But the very next day, April 3, it realised its “folly” that the campaign has to end by 5.30 pm on April 4. And poor Sarma offered an apology too. Immediately Arora and his boys amended the EC order, reducing the sentence and thus giving BJP leader Sarma the much-needed opportunity to continue his tirade before the campaigning deadline commenced and finish his unfinished task.
These are merely two most recent instances of the open unapologetic bias of a national institution under the outgoing CEC whose fair and objective role as a referee of the political match between the ruling party and its opposition is crucial for the survival of Democracy. For instance, it baffled many why extend polls in West Bengal to eight phases and it turns out that even the choice of constituencies was made in such a way as to help out the BJP. Thus, the first two phases polling was scheduled in constituencies where the BJP has managed considerable influence. Moreover, the issue of CAA had become prickly in Assam what with the Assamese agitating that Modi-Shah’s Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 which will welcome the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian migrants from Bangladesh will result in further destroying the demographic balance between the Assamese and Bengalis and so the BJP did not want CAA to become a poll issue in Assam and thus till April 6, it wanted no mention of the CAA.
But on the other hand, the same issue could win it considerable support among the Matua community who have been migrating from Bangladesh from time to time since the Partition and creation of East Pakistan. So now that the Assam polls are over Shah, in his bid to reap political mileage from CAA has stated that CAA will surely be implemented but after the pandemic crisis is over. However, unless the Election facilitated this through careful choice of constituencies, this task could not have been accomplished. How much and whether it will eventually sway the Matua voters, will only be evident on May 2, the counting day. But to influence the Matua community, right on the first day of the 8-phase West Bengal polling, the Prime Minister was at the Matua temple in Bangladesh, and his embedded TV channels not so subtly conveyed the political message to the Matua community. Opposition parties protested and knocked the EC door, which remained unmoved. And why won’t it, when it changed the rules for the sake of BJP in respect of polling agents? Earlier the EC rule was that the polling agent from any party at a particular booth had to be someone who was a registered voter in that booth, But, unlike the TMC or even the Left and the Congress, the BJP does not have much of its own cadre in Bengal. So, it desperately needed to alter that rule to suit it, which the EC under Arora promptly did.
The TMC released an audio of a telephone conversation between a local BJP leader Shishir Bajoria with now well-known senior BJP leader Mukul Roy where in Bajoria is beseeching Roy to persuade the EC to change its rule and allow outsiders to be polling agents as well. The EC faithfully changed this rule. Will it be too much to question the objectivity and fair play of this Referee?
West Bengal and Assam are two states where the BJP stakes are high, with their government in the latter and a determination to form a government in the former. But the other three states Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry where it has no mass support worth the name too, the BJP has not spared. In Tamil Nadu, it is running piggy back on the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK) the political rival of the main party the DMK led by former chief minister Karunanidhi’s son and a widely respected leader M K Stalin. Amidst poll campaign Modi government despatched Income tax officials to raid the office, home and other premises of Stalin’s son-in-law Sabreesan, a DMK worker and a prominent businessman of Tamil Nadu. The idea evidently was to impress the Tamil voters that the Karunanidhi family is corrupt and their only choice should be the AIADMK-BJP alliance. The Opposition approached the Election Commission. But it looked the other side.
Similarly in Kerala, where the BJP has even slimmer chance of winning a single seat. But it believes what’s the harm in trying and so the target is chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Hence, right in the middle of the election campaign senior officials of the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) were summoned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) another pet hound of this BJP government. Vijayan reported the matter to the EC. Again, no response.
Actually, the pro Modi bias of the CEC Arora was evident and raised in the 2019 general elections itself when Modi went around encashing on the Pulwama attack by Pakistani terrorists and the retaliatory air strike on a cloudy day at Balakote in Pakistan and openly insinuating that those who questioned him or opposed him in that election were anti-national and had no love for our jawans fighting on the borders. Innumerable complaints were sent to the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora. But he continued giving Modi and Amit Shah clean chits even though his second in command Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa dissented at least five times with the other two members of the Commission. He then wrote a letter to the CEC protesting that the CEC won’t even register his dissent note in the minutes of the meetings.
Once Modi had got elected to the 17th Lok Sabha with even greater majority, he went after Lavasa and his entire family including his wife, daughter, sister and sister’s son, all highly respected technocrats and bureaucrats. Eventually Ashok Lavasa left for the Asian Development Bank and for Modi and Arora that was good riddance.