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Elections: Fairness Is The Key!
Opinion

Elections: Fairness Is The Key!

Prof. T K Thomas

One remembers the country’s General Elections from the very first one in 1952. As school children we knew that independent Republic of India was going to elect its first Parliament and government. There were few candidates and who would win the seat of Kottayam was a foregone conclusion. The Indian National Congress, we were given to understand would win even if a lamp post was the candidate. We kids were amused by small processions, rallies and slogan shouting and would rush to our gate to see the fun. The Congress symbol was a pair of yoked oxen and the appeal was to vote in the “kala petty” or the oxen box!

Things have completely changed today with the Grand Old Party does not even contest the Kottayam seat in this election. The Kerala Congress and the communists had won the seat more times than the Congress since 1967; this time also the Kerala Congress, part of the Congress led United Democratic Front [UDF] is contesting the seat. Instead of the box of the 1952 elections we have the Electronic Voting Machine [EVM] with marginal presence of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail [VVPAT] for random verification in 5% up from 1 last time per assembly segment.

The Central Election Commission was considered an independent body but was not in preeminence till T N Seshan, a 1955 batch IAS officer took over as the 10th Chief Election Commissioner of India.[ 1990 to 1996]. Seshan put the fear of the Commission in an unruly electoral system and reformed the system by eliminating corrupt practices by political parties. According to political observers, that fear today, has become rather selective and the Commission’s conduct is being questioned by opposition parties. There have been questions about the efficacy of the EVM too, with many political parties seeking a return to the old manual polling system.

The all pervading presence of the electronic and social media has completely changed the way election campaigns are conducted today. The social media is agog with reactions to pronouncements of the main characters as the campaign drama unfolds. On World Theatre Day there was real drama with people with lot of loose cash in the denomination of 2000 making frantic calls and scurrying to banks and ATMs, the moment our Prime Minister cautioned people on the twitter that he was addressing the nation shortly. It was indeed speculative panic as to what would befall the country following his imminent address to the nation. A dear friend thought that it was about a second demonetization! Another surmised that there may be yet another surgical strike of some sort. Another friend cautioned that one should dispose of high value currency to avoid yet another nightmare of waiting in an ATM queue.

Nothing like that happened. The PM did address the nation around noon and congratulated our space scientists for making the country the fourth in the world to be part of the elite group of space faring nations comprising US, China and Russia by using an ASAT missile to destroy a low orbit satellite. The opposition cried foul about his broadcast and accused the PM of violating the Model Code of Conduct. The Central Election Commission however dismissed the complaint.

Not that the Election Commission is going soft on those who act and behave as if they care a hoot for the Model Code of Conduct. Statements that never should have been made on the eve of a General Election have been made by politicians especially of the ruling dispensation, by officials and politicians holding constitutional positions, Ministers and senior politicians. The case of the vice chairman of the Niti Ayog, the body which has replaced the erstwhile Planning Commission, who had no compunction in criticizing the proposed Nyunatam Aay Yojana [NYAY] of the Indian National Congress is really interesting. The gentleman probably forgot that he was essentially a bureaucrat and is not supposed to be speaking like a politician. No one had complained to the Election Commission when the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley commented that the Congress manifesto, [the highlight of which was the NYAY proposal], “plans to destroy institutions, help terrorists…. irresponsible and dangerous.”The Election Commission appeared too magnanimous to the erring Niti Ayog boss and the serious action against him was just a mild warning asking him, “not to do it in future”, reminding one of school days and the mild reprimand a favoured few students got from teachers for acts of indiscipline.

On the raids by the enforcement agencies on political opponents of the government, the Commission has on Tuesday [9th March] morning called the Revenue Secretary and Chairman, Central Board of Direct Taxes [CBDT] to explain the raids amidst allegations by the Congress that the ruling BJP was using enforcement agencies to target it during the election season. On Sunday, the Election Commission as per media reports, “strongly advised the Finance Ministry that any action by the enforcement agencies during election time should be ‘neutral‘ and “non discriminatory” and officials of the poll panel should be kept in the loop about such actions.

The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adithyanath has been accused by opponents for being intemperate using patently communal statements at election rallies. While deriding the Congress for feeding biriyani to Pakistani/ Pakistan supported intruders, Yogi ji said that “Modi ji ki army” was feeding the intruders with “bullets and bomb”. The opposition was livid and approached the Election Commission for taking action against Yogi ji for “insulting the Indian Army.” Here again the action of the Election Commission by just ‘’warning’’ the Chief Minister was severely criticized by the spokesperson of the main opposition who asked an insinuating question whether the Model Code of Conduct was “Modi Code of Conduct”?

The Governor of Rajasthan and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh earlier had openly appealed for a second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, did violate the Model Code according to the Election Commission. The Commission sent its decision indicting the Rajasthan Governor to the President of India who in turn asked the Home Ministry to initiate action against Kalyan Singh for violation of the Model Code of Conduct. The Opposition parties are wondering why the Rajasthan Governor was not asked to resign.

If there are open cases of corruption, generation of black money or havala rackets, enforcement agencies are duty bound to take action to book the culprits, however mighty they may be. The ruling party, the opposition parties allege, has used the agencies like Income Tax, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence or Enforcement Directorate after the election process and the Model Code of Conduct have come into effect. They also allege that these actions are preplanned and timed to malign political opponents during the election season. Interestingly, even before details of the illegal money confiscated from opposition parties are announced by agencies like Income Tax department, BJP ministers and leaders come out with the exact amounts; obviously the opposition parties allege connivance.

Never before in the history the Indian Election Commission has been accused of partisan attitude of such magnitude. On Tuesday [9th April] some of the newspapers reported that 66 former civil servants have written to the President of India about the functioning of the Election Commission. They include former IPS officer Julio Ribeiro, former Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, former Lt. Governor of Delhi Najeeb Jung, former TRAI chairman Rahul Khullar and former CEO of Prasar Bharati, Jawhar Sircar. The issues raised by these former civil servants comprise the address to the nation by the PM on the Anti Satellite weapons [ASAT], the upcoming Modi biopic, a web series on his life, NaMo TV and alleged ‘incendiary’ speeches by the PM and BJP leaders. According to their statement, “the ECI’s independence, fairness, impartiality, and efficiency are perceived to be compromised today, thereby endangering the integrity of the electoral process which is the very foundation of Indian democracy. We are distressed to note the misuse , abuse and blatant disregard of the Model Code of Conduct [MCC] by the ruling party at the centre and the ECI’s pusillanimity in coming down with a heavy hand on these violations.”

Such reactions by former senior civil servants are indications that rightly or wrongly there is some amount of doubts or mistrust in the minds of people. The Election Commission of India has a great legacy of fairness and impartiality. It is natural that aggrieved opposition parties may question even legitimate actions of any statutory body. But when reputed former civil servants come out in open criticism of the Commission it may be a warning signal. Shouldn’t Caesar’s wife be above suspicion?

TAIL PIECE

“I want to ask first time voters, can your first vote be cast in honour of those brave Air Force pilots who led the airstrike in Balakot? Can your first vote be cast to honour those brave soldiers who died in Pulwama?”

{Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking first time voters at an election rally in Latur, Maharashtra on Tuesday, April 9,2019}