Why is the Election Commission ensuring an uneven playing field?

EC’s inexplicable conduct during this crucial election is raising fresh doubts about its independence and competence, if not integrity

PM Modi campaigns in Maharashtra (photo: PTI)
PM Modi campaigns in Maharashtra (photo: PTI)

Sharad Gupta

In the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, an almost unified Opposition is pitched against the NDA behemoth headed by the immensely popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The latter has been claiming that various undesirable and possibly anti-national elements — from zyada bachche paida karne wale (Muslims) to Pakistan — are the ones rooting for a Congress government.

While the PM’s dog whistles did not come as a surprise, what has appalled people is the lopsided attitude of the regulator, the Election Commission of India (ECI), which has openly sided with the ruling BJP. If one had to borrow an analogy from cricket, one could call it a Pakistan cricket team from the 1970s and 80s, which used to play with 13 players — including two Pakistani umpires!

The ECI ignores myriad violations of the model code of conduct (MCC) by ruling party leaders, especially PM Modi, while issuing notices to Opposition leaders even on frivolous complaints. As if promoting this uneven playing field wasn’t enough, the ECI has been playing truant with polling figures as well. This prompted Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge to write a letter to leaders of all alliance parties, urging them to unitedly oppose the ECI’s shenanigans.

Just sample these examples of the ECI’s decision-making: it banned a poll campaign song issued by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, soon after receiving a complaint from the BJP. The song’s lyrics the ECI objected to were – "jail ka jawaab vote se denge". However, when AAP complained to the ECI about objectionable posters put up by the BJP in New Delhi, the commission not only remained quiet but also refused to reveal whether it would take any action against the BJP.

The posters in question depicted Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal as corrupt, juxtaposed against Modi (depicted in the picture as honest). Whom would you choose, asked the poster. Senior AAP leader Saurabh Bhardwaj told the media, “In response to our complaint, the Delhi election commissioner refused to set a deadline for his verdict. When we asked, will you pronounce a verdict at all, he said no. I am not duty-bound to give you a reply.”

In another seemingly double-faced act, the ECI asked micro-blogging site X to take down an animation video shared by Karnataka BJP’s handle because it engaged in ‘hate speech’. The animation depicted caricatures of Congress MP Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah and showed four chicks in a basket — SC, ST, OBC and Muslims. The mother hen, ostensibly the Congress leader, would feed only the fat and bigger Muslim chick, ignoring the three smaller and malnourished chicks.

The complaint was lodged on 5 May. But the ECI’s order was issued around 4.00 pm on Tuesday, 7 May, when most of the voting in Karnataka had already been held and the BJP had already milked the false propaganda unleashed to counter collateral damage caused by the Prajwal Revanna sexual assault videos.

The animation amplified the PM’s claim that the Congress was in favour of a 'Muslim quota' at the cost of SC, ST and OBC quotas — an allegation repeated ad nauseam by top BJP leaders. “If the tweet was indeed found to be objectionable and construed as hate speech, why were PM Modi’s statements to the same effect not given the same treatment?

"Obviously, the election commissioners appear to be scared of taking action against their appointing authority, the prime minister. This is not an example of fair practice”, said UP Congress leader Akhilesh Pratap Singh.

The allegation found resonance in the backdrop of the kid gloves treatment given by the ECI to poll violations by PM Modi. In response to complaints against Modi, the commission issued a notice to party chief J.P. Nadda, not to the actual culprit, the prime minister.  

The commission’s failure to release polling figures for the first two phases until well after 10 days of the first phase also raised eyebrows. What it finally released was only the polling percentage and not the exact numbers.

In his letter to allies, Kharge pointed out the difference in initial figures and the final ones (issued 10 days later by the ECI) which was a staggering 5.75 per cent. “It gives rise to the suspicion of malpractices. How can there be such a large-scale discrepancy in polling figures, in the age of electronic voting machines (EVMs)? Why the ECI took so many days to issue the final figures when poll figures from EVMs are collated in real time?” he wondered.

The second discrepancy was in Form 17-C, signed and issued mandatorily by polling officers at each polling booth at the end of polling, with copies given to polling agents of all political parties. The form contains two figures — the total number of voters at a particular booth and the number of actual votes cast.

There were many instances where Form 17-C signed by the polling officer and handed over to parties’ agents were found to be blank. It had no figures. One can easily collate figures from all polling booths in a particular constituency to find out the exact number of votes polled. Any discrepancy in polling figures can be immediately detected, but in the absence of Form 17-C figures, this exercise can provide only an approximation.

Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien, in a letter to the ECI, raised similar complaints. He not only mentioned the names of polling booths where blank forms were issued but also attached copies of such forms. Similarly, TMC Rajya Sabha member Saket Gokhale, in an RTI filed on Tuesday, wanted to know the total number of voters, and total votes polled in the 102 Parliamentary constituencies which went to polls in the first two phases.

The lapses have stirred a number of civil society groups into action. An open letter to the ECI signed by 83 former civil servants read, “The ECI has not been particularly effective in enforcing the Model Code of Conduct to check its misuse, especially by the party in power. Infractions of the Model Code of Conduct by no less a personage than the Prime Minister have not been acted upon by the ECI even after these were brought to its notice…. In spite of the enormous powers vested in it under Article 324 of the Constitution of India, the ECI, in recent years, has exhibited a strange diffidence, especially in dealing with actions that impact the conduct of free and fair elections.”

In a brazenly communal statement on 21 April that is full of Islamophobic rant and dog-whistle, PM Modi falsely claimed that the Congress party promised to take people’s wealth and give it to Muslims, who he referred to as “infiltrators” and “those with more children”. But the ECI remained indifferent. It just issued notice to Nadda, not to Modi.

There have been reports about police in states like Uttar Pradesh preventing Muslim voters being allowed to vote. The right to freely cast one’s vote is a foundational right in a democracy and integral to free and fair elections.

The ECI has not even been responding to applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act seeking critical information. So much so that the Central Information Commission (CIC) expressed “severe displeasure” over the ECI not furnishing a reply to an RTI plea that had asked the poll panel about the action taken on a “representation” given to it by eminent citizens, raising questions on the credibility of EVMs and VVPAT machines during elections.

It is not for nothing, then, that the Supreme Court has pulled up the ECI on several occasions. Hearing a petition challenging the appointment of IAS officer Arun Goel to the ECI, the apex court had asked the solicitor-general, “If prime minister and law minister, by way of the majority, appoint ECs, will they be able to haul up their appointing authority if they committed a violation of MCC?"

This apprehension is coming true. There is still some hope left, however, as the Supreme Court yet is to rule on petitions challenging the selection procedure of election commissioners.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines