Social Media and WhatsApp were used in 2014 almost exclusively by the ‘Modi for PM’ campaign. This time it is a free-for-all. Profiling of voters by using AADHAAR data was not so widespread, one suspects, last time. This time, as the FIR lodged by UIDAI in Hyderabad shows, several other parties and agencies may have used the data to do a lot more than profiling voters by their religion, marital status, political orientation and number of family members, income data and a lot more.
This is also turning out to be an even more expensive election than the last one. Not only does the Bharatiya Janata Party seem to have a lot more funds at its disposal than in 2014, other political parties have clearly been forced to spend a lot more than they did earlier in their bid to catch up with the BJP.
This is understandable because parties in the opposition are fighting an existential crisis. BJP and the Modi-Shah duo have never made a secret of their aim to decimate the opposition and clear the political space for BJP to govern this country for the next half a century. When union minister Maneka Gandhi was caught this week telling people that villages would be classified into different categories based on the percentage of votes polled by the BJP in each village, she was not merely trying to intimidate the voters. She was unwittingly providing an insight to what BJP is up to.
Public memory is short and few recall the ‘minor’ controversy around the Modi Government opposing the Election Commission’s proposal to use a ‘Totaliser’, a computerized machine that would have enabled the Commission to mix votes cast in a cluster of 14 booths or more and then count them. Mixing ballots is something that the EC used to do during the days when paper ballots were used. It protected the voters and it made it difficult for political parties to discover the voting behaviour at booths and villages.
But the Modi Government turned down the ‘Totaliser’ on the ground that the Government needed to know the performance of the MPs on the ground! The specious argument was that it would help improve governance. The stakeholders, the media, the judiciary and the political parties etc., let it go. As Maneka Gandhi’s intended or unintended comment now shows, political parties would know post-poll exactly how each village cast their votes. It may not be far-fetched to believe that a campaign to communicate this—as Maneka Gandhi has done---to the voters may have been undertaken at a scale that the EC may not even be aware of.
Proliferation of the media with little regulatory control—as the experience with Namo TV demonstrated—have also made the task of the EC difficult. The fact that for the first time in 30 years it is having to deal with a power-drunk party behaving like a bull in a china shop is also something that needs to be factored in while assessing the performance of the Election Commission.
Having said that, it goes without saying that the Election Commission, if it so desires, can put a break to a lot of monkey business. It has the power to do so. And it will be remembered for reining in the crazy and wild dance of democracy that India is witnessing.
1. It can immediately debar TWO worst offenders, one each from the BJP and the opposition, from contesting elections for the next six years. It will send out the right message. Whether the Prime Minister and Union Minister Maneka Gandhi qualify for this is for the Commission to decide of course.
2. It can debar FIVE campaigners each from the NDA and the opposition from campaigning for a week. Banning them from campaigning for a day or two before polling is not enough to deter the muck-rakers.
3. The Commission can similarly ask Twitter and Facebook to block till elections are over 50 accounts each peddling fake news, hate speech etc. from both sides.
Tough situations require tough measures. And this is one election when it is clear that there is no level playing field. Let the EC be even-handed if it so likes. But let it set an example first.