9 December 2019 10:09 AM

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AVAY SHUKLA | 17 APRIL, 2019

Election Commission: What Use Is A Watchdog When It Hesitates to Bite?

A skewed playing field, a model code in tatters #TCVotes


The odds are stacked against the non-NDA opposition in the current elections to Parliament. I am not speaking about the preferences of the voter but about the electoral processes, which have been customised to suit the ruling party.

Consider first the fact that actual polling has been stretched out over interminable seven phases lasting 40 days, as if there is a total collapse of law and order in the country. The argument that this ensures “ free and fair” polling is specious because in fact it does just the opposite.

Such an extended campaigning period stretches resources- men, material and money- of political parties but eminently suits the Bharatiya Janata Party and the government. The latter is flush with funds - it received Rs.1200 crores in donations last year as against Rs. 200 crores for the Congress, and 95% of all electoral bonds- and can therefore sustain a long campaign much better than the others.

It is also interesting to note that the four states where the BJP’s stakes are the highest, both in terms of retaining seats and gaining new ones, are the ones where the maximum number of phases have been notified- UP, West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. UP, Bihar and West Bengal have been salami-sliced into 7 phases each and Odisha into 4.

Now, if indeed security was such a concern, surely it made more sense to saturate them with security personnel at one go and have the polling over with in just one or two phases? That would give less time to the mischief makers to organise themselves and cause any disruption; in fact, doing so would have stretched THEIR resources. Instead now they can move sequentially from constituency to constituency, state to state, leisurely over a six week period.

The only party which gains with this absurd scheduling is the BJP because it will now allow their main- perhaps only- vote catcher, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to travel to and campaign in each clutch of constituencies and states one after the other. This would not have been possible in a single or two phase polling. It is hard not to surmise that the scheduling has been crafted by the Election Commission in order to enable Modi to cover as much of the country as possible.

Secondly, the entire electoral process has been vitiated, and the playing field distorted, by the Electoral Bonds, introduced in 2017. This has ensured the financial superiority and resource advantage of the BJP over the others.

Earlier, Big Business spread its donations over a number of political parties in order to hedge their bets because the contributions were public knowledge. The opacity built into the Electoral Bonds now ensures that only the government knows( through the banks). And this is a government with a track record of using enforcement agencies for political objectives. It would be a stupid industrialist who would now have the temerity to contribute to any party but the ruling party.

To encourage even greater magnanimity from them Minister Arun Jaitley then removed the 7.5% cap on political donations by companies and even permitted foreign companies to contribute. Is it therefore any surprise that of the Rs. 215 crore worth of Electoral Bonds purchased in 2017-18, as much as Rs. 210 crores went to the BJP?

Electoral Bonds have been the most damaging perversion of India’s democratic process for they have put an unhealthy premium on money as the arbiter of elections.

Bonds worth Rs.1716 crore have been purchased in just the last 3 months! The Election Commisson of India has to share a large part of the blame for allowing this, for in 2016-17 it did nothing substantial to stop their introduction, apart from mumbling its reservations about it to the government.

The ECI is not subservient to the government. It is a constitutional body tasked with protecting the country’s electoral landscape. It was its duty to have immediately challenged the matter in the Supreme Court and obtained a stay. It lacked the courage to do so; it was left to a voluntary election watchdog and an RTI activist to do so.

The SC has now asked all parties to submit the list of donors ( unfortunately again in a sealed cover) to the ECI and shall finally decide on the matter soon. But the damage has been done and the playing field for the 2019 elections has been badly tilted in favour of the BJP by these Bonds.

Unfortunately, it’s the same with the Model Code of Conduct( MCC), which is no longer worth the paper it is written on. Minor infractions are noted and invite the usual notices, but no worthwhile action is ever taken on the more major violations, usually committed by the ruling party or its supporters within the government.

The public speech of Kalyan Singh, the Rajasthan Governor, seeking votes for the BJP was ignored by the ECI till a complaint was lodged. The ECI should have asked the President to sack the Governor, or at least to censure him and send him on leave for the duration of the polling period. Instead, it “forwarded” a report to the President who has also “forwarded” it to the government. Rest assured nothing more will happen.

The Vice Chairman of NITI Ayog, a government employee, openly criticised Rahul Gandhi’s promise of a minimum income guarantee scheme; he should have been immediately removed from his post but the ECI was content to simply administer a tender rap on the knuckles, sending a signal to all government servants that as long as one is on the right side of the ruling dispensation, the MCC can be safely ignored.

There have been other instances where an impartial ECI would have taken exemplary action: the announcement of the ASAT launch on March 27, its telecast on Doordarshan and the Prime Minister using the occasion to buttress his nationalistic credentials; Yogi Adithyanath invoking the Army as “ Modi’s Army.

The PM has been absolved of any wrong doing in the first case while Adityanath has been belatedly barred from campaigning for 72 hours, as have Mayawati and Azam Khan, but only after a public outcry and a stern notice by the SC. The ECI has redeemed itself somewhat by banning the release of the PM’s biopic, and asking Namo TV to precertify its programmes. But questions of its registration, funding and ownership still remain and the government is in no hurry to investigate them.

And all this while Chief Secretaries and DGPs of opposition ruled states are being shifted without assigning any cogent reasons. There has been no word from the ECI yet about the Code violations by the Prime Minister himself: the continued appeals to (first time) voters to vote for Pulwama, Balakot and their martyrs, the ASAT announcement and the broadcasting of his Chowkidar sammelan on official channels. Will similar rules and standards be applied to him?

One wishes the ECI would stop just barking and bite more often. Its reluctance to take stern action does not live up to the Commission’s glorious past when it had ensured the resignation of a Himachal Governor for campaigning for his son and had debarred Bal Thackerey from contesting elections because he had indulged in hate speech.

Of what use is a watchdog if it has no fight in it?

Avay Shukla is retired from the Indian Administrative Service.
 

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