The Election Commission has been under scrutiny for not taking action against those who violate the Model Code of Conduct. It is now faced with the task of regaining moral authority
Last week, I read an excellent article in the New York Times by SY Quraishi, who was India’s Chief Election Commissioner between 2010 and 2012. In this article, Quraishi shared a number of fascinating nibbles about the Election Commission of India (ECI). A particularly interesting fact highlighted by him was the sheer size of the Indian election and the poll panel’s massive responsibility to ensure that each vote counts. He illustrated a lovely example of this task by narrating how Election Commissioners set up a polling booth in the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat for the only living voter in the area: A Hindu priest.
The Indian election is remarkable. As the Constitutional watchdog of the voting process, the EC plays an important role to ensure free and fair polls. It is fully empowered to take any action for upholding the legitimacy of a democratic process. While each election is crucial, the ongoing edition requires the electoral body to demand more from itself. No other election was filled with as much misinformation, as much hatred, and as clear a blatant abdication of any form of responsible conduct than the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. This is especially evident from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) conduct and transgressions in the ongoing elections. However, the EC has unfortunately been disappointingly silent through this most trying period.
One way through which the electoral body tries to ensure free and fair polls is by issuing guidelines for Model Code of Conduct, which come into force the day the election schedule is announced. This code is not a law. Instead, it is in the form of a moral code and the electoral body expects the politicians to adhere to the terms set by it. Crucially, it believes that leaders will have the integrity to adhere to such a code. Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, the moral authority of the EC and the Model Code of Conduct has been brazenly undermined by the Prime Minister, who has shown reckless disregard.
Take, for example, the directives of the Election Commission. On March 19, the electoral body issued a general advisory saying that “political parties/candidates are advised that their campaigners/candidates should desist, as part of their campaigning, from indulging in any political propaganda involving activities of the defence forces.”
The order was aimed at curbing actions by political parties who claim votes in the name of the military because after all, India’s armed forces are not owned by any political party. Therefore, one expects that any decent political party will not ask for votes in the name of its martyrs. However, in this election, we have campaigners like Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who termed the Army as “Modiji ki Sena.”
The Prime Minister, too, during an election speech on April 9 said: “I wish to ask my first-time voters, can you dedicate your first vote to the brave martyrs of Pulwama”? Did Prime Minister Modi not get the memo or was he absolutely unafraid of any repercussions? Since it is evident that the Prime Minister will not voluntarily subject himself to any authority, let alone a moral one, it is incumbent on the enforcers of the Model Code of Conduct to come down hard against such brazen violation of diktats of the institution.
However, the EC has been found terribly wanting. While it heard numerous complaints and representations against various leaders, till last week, it took no action against the various representations by Opposition parties against the comments and conduct of Prime Minister Modi. This forced the Congress to approach the Supreme Court in the hope that such an action would provide some explanation as to why numerous blatant violations by the Prime Minister were not examined and acted upon by the EC.
Ironically, the Commission was prompt in dealing with complaints against other candidates, but failed to display the same promptness in dealing with objections raised against the Prime Minister and BJP chief Amit Shah. Since then, we have seen Prime Minister Modi not being cautioned for several parts of his speech against Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, who is contesting from Wayanad, and the April 9 speech where the Prime Minister explicitly asked the voters to dedicate their vote to Pulwama martyrs. If this isn’t “political propaganda involving activities of the defence forces,” I am not sure what is.
Even after an inexhaustible delay, when it did choose to probe these charges and act, the EC cleared the Prime Minister on two counts. Even when his remarks were not that veiled and quite specific.
Other than this, there have been several instances like “no pending complaint against Prime Minister Modi” appearing on the poll panel’s portal, despite the fact that several complaints have been lodged. The official defence is that there has to be a prima facie violation of the Model Code of Conduct. That means the violation should be obvious on the face of it. A look at some of the comments on social media and by wide sections of the political establishment will show that this basic standard has been met.
Similarly, the fact that the EC suspended an IAS officer, who searched Modi’s chopper, and that this action of the electoral body was stayed by the Central Administrative Tribunal does not reflect well on it either.
Mahatma Gandhi had once said, “Moral authority is never retained by any attempt to hold on to it. It comes without seeking and is retained without effort.” The Indian elections are a magnificent testimony to our commitment to democracy. However, it needs a strong moral authority to ensure that it remains so. Unfortunately, going by events of the past few weeks, the EC will need to put immense effort to regain its moral authority and fulfil the role it was meant to. And its office-bearers will at some point have to think about the sacredness of their jobs over political expediency.
(The writer is Jharkhand PCC president, former MP and IPS officer. Views are personal)
Writer: Ajoy Kumar
Courtesy: The Pioneer