The Election Commission – Clueless, Toothless And Speechless

Never before has the authority and impartiality of the Commission been challenged in this manner, never before has it been WARNED by a candidate to behave itself, never has it been defied by a state government to do its worst, never before has it been warned of retribution by a state government, rarely has its officials been obstructed as this time.

Campaigning has now concluded for the most fractious, abusive and divisive elections this country has witnessed. Belying all expectations, our politicians have just done the impossible – they have plumbed new lows in human behaviour and language.

Standing in the middle of all this carnage of values and moral standards has been the Election Commission of India, ostensibly a redoubtable referee, but actually an unwitting, though active, participant in the gross devaluation of the basic principles of civilised debate that has just taken place.

Never before has the authority and impartiality of the Commission been challenged in this manner, never before has it been WARNED by a candidate to behave itself, never has it been defied by a state government to do its worst, never before has it been warned of retribution by a state government, rarely has its officials been obstructed as this time.

Courtesy 'Times of India'
Courtesy ‘Times of India’

It will take a long time for the Election Commission to recover from the mauling it has been subjected to in the last month or so. And the saddest part of it all, for me, is that the Commission has no one to blame but itself for the most part.

Merely being a “constitutional authority” is no guarantee of immunity from political slander in this country, as even our Presidents and Supreme Court judges have discovered in the past. Excessive demonstrations of one’s powers, without backing it up with equally demonstrative action on the ground, also does not generate respect.

Complete and arbitrary distrust of other constitutional authorities, such as state governments, only erodes one’s own effectiveness. And maintaining a monarchical silence when all kinds of half-truths and allegations are being bandied about on all TV channels is, simply put, stupid and self defeating.

The Commission has been guilty of all these in this election.

The Commission’s first mistake was the stretching of the election process over an interminable sixty days. This betrays nothing but the classic bureaucratic addiction for power (remember, all the three Commissioners are dyed-in-the wool bureaucrats or they wouldn’t be where they are, after all!), regardless of the mayhem it causes to governance generally.

The longer the election period, the longer the Commissioners remain all powerful-combining the powers of the President, the Union government, ALL state governments, even the Supreme Court! The reason always given- Security considerations – is simple balderdash and nonsense.

Other than the Naxalite affected districts, where the central para-military forces could have been concentrated exclusively for two days and polling in them completed in that period, all the other states could have gone to the polls in one day itself under security provided by the state police itself, supplemented again by the central police in the “sensitive” booths or constituencies.

The whole polling process could have been completed in two phases spread over a week only.

By over hyping the security situation successive Election Commissions have done a great dis-service to the image of the country, making us look like a tin pot republic where voting can only be ensured under the barrel of a gun.

By stretching the period over two months the Commission has only made its own job, and that of millions of government employees in the field, more difficult. The Commission may claim that a long period enables it to marshal its resources better (doubtful, in my opinion); what is indisputable, however, is that it certainly enables the trouble makers to marshal their resources even more effectively!

A single day polling all over the country would tie down these people to their own constituencies, and limit the scope of their mischief or potential for creating trouble. But a nine phase polling (as we have had) enables them to move from one state / constituency to another, optimising their nuisance value.

And so we have thousands of party workers landing up at Amethi one day and then moving en mass to Varanasi three days later, and so on. This provides a multiplier effect for trouble, making life that much more difficult for the law and order agencies.

A modified Murphy’s Law will also be at work here – the longer the time allowed, the more the chances that something will go wrong. We have seen this happening all too often.

Given the abysmal standards of our politicians, more time can only mean more abuses, more intimidation, more cocking the snook at authority, more attempts to generate hatred and instigate violence. Nine phases may give you a power trip, Mr. Sampath, but it doesn’t work for the rest of us ordinary folks.

The Commission’s second mistake stems from its showpiece notification-the Model Code of Conduct which is actually an archaic, unenforceable piece of officialese that creates ninety percent of the controversies it gets embroiled in.

By seeking to muzzle and edit candidates’ speeches it intrudes into the realm of free expression and lets loose the genie of disaffection which cannot be shoved back into the bottle.

Consider the comments of Azam Khan (that Kargil was won by Muslim soldiers), Amit Shah (that voters of Muzzafarnagar should take revenge through the ballot box), Giriraj Singh (that those who do not vote for Modi should go to Pakistan), Kejriwal (that voting for BJP or the Congress is a betrayal of the country and of God).

Now, these statements can be insensitive, untrue, in bad taste, even scandalous: but are they of such a criminal or felonious nature that warrant issue of notice by the Commission? Should it not be for the voter to judge these utterances and their speakers and make up their minds?

In an election all kinds of opinions will be expressed but so long as they don’t openly incite violence should the Commission play the role of moral policeman, especially in this age of 24X7 news channels and the internet?

By unnecessarily trying to do so the Commission has descended into the messy pit whereas it should have kept itself aloof from this daily wrangling.  By lying down with the dogs it has acquired their fleas too.

It has exposed itself to allegations of favouritism, selective interpretation, timidity, and lost its credibility. Most of its time has been taken up by dealing with these controversies, at the cost of real issues such as booth capturing and distribution of money and liquor.

When Antony was leaving with his armies to conquer Egypt he was advised by Caesar: Look after your army for it is what makes your laws, legal-sane advice the Commission too could have benefited from. The Commission has lots of laws but not the resolve and determination to enforce them in an even-handed manner.

Having descended into the lion’s pit it should have acted more firmly in dealing with politicos who broke them: it should have ordered the immediate arrest of the TMC MLA and his goons who assaulted EC officials in Bengal.

It should have defended its beleaguered field officers with more boldness: initially backing the DM of Varanasi (for an impeccable administrative decision, in my view) it quickly developed cold feet and appointed a Special Observer to monitor him, instantly branding him as untrustworthy. Mr. Sampath and co. certainly did not get any brownie points from the BJP for this spinelessness, but the damage done to the morale of field officers was incalculable.

This timidity (Mr. Arun Jaitley’s words) was further exhibited in the response to  large scale complaints of booth capturing and rigging by the TMC in some constituencies of Bengal. Every single party-Congress, BJP and the Left- other than the TMC made this charge-they also added that the Commission’s Observer was not available on the polling day, refused to answer his phone, took no action on their complaints and should be immediately shifted.

Given the TMC’s earlier lawless conduct this near unanimous complaint should have been taken more seriously by the Commission, but it dismissed them in less than twenty four hours, basing its decision on the report of the same Observer who was derelict in his duties in the first place!

This widespread impression of the Commission’s faint-hearted and timorous (if not also partisan) conduct gets further strengthened by other instances of inexplicable inactivity on its part. Mamata Bannerji has openly threatened and challenged the Commission which maintained a Sphinx like silence.

Rahul Gandhi was photographed in the EVM enclosure of a polling booth talking to a voter, an absolute no-no: the Commission did nothing for four days and then came out with a statement exonerating him on the grounds that the EVM was not working! Priyanka Gandhi’s PS was caught loitering within the polling area without any authorisation but not even a notice was issued to Priyanka.

Once a body like the Election Commission, which for two months dons the mantle of God, loses its credibility and respect it also loses its effectiveness. I suspect that has happened with this Commission-major political parties are challenging it on a daily basis, some are sitting on dharnas against it, the TMC goons are back to bashing up EC officials in Bengal, Mulayam Singh is daring the EC to take action against him, Arun Jaitley is openly saying on prime-time TV that the EC has compromised itself.

The Commission has not helped matters by generally maintaining a Delphic silence. It was only two days ago that the Chief Election Commissioner appeared on TV to explain his position, but by then it was almost too late.

A poorly done job was made even worse by failure to communicate or to explain. In an election of such a massive scale there are bound to be flash points every day, incidents, charges and counter charges, violations, controversies.

Their impact is amplified by TV and social media, which political parties have learnt to exploit to their advantage. At the centre of it all is the Election Commission, maintaining an imperial reticence and making things worse by its speechlessness.

Why can the Commission not hold A DAILY PRESS CONFERENCE and share with the nation all news related to the election process? This would immediately scotch mischievous rumours, answer charges against the Commission on a real time basis, keep the public informed of the Commission’s decisions and the reasons for them, and so on.

The Commission should have learnt from Mr. Manmohan Singh’s experience the damage that silence can do.

To conclude. We have never had an election where the relationship between the Election Commission and the major political parties has  been so adversarial as in the current one: this does not bode well for the future. The two have to work together.

Times, politics, voters-all are changing very rapidly and the Commission has to reinvent itself. It cannot work with an adversarial relationship with state governments either (which is the case presently) and cannot order them about peremptorily – the Commission has to realise that state governments are equal partners in the exercise.

The Code of Conduct should be consigned to the same dust bin where Rahul Gandhi threw the MPs’ Disqualification Amendment Bill, and should be rewritten.

The Commission should not be God anymore but should restrict its role to a manager of elections-not Commander-in-Chief, Mother Superior, Daniel and Moses rolled into one.

And it should learn from Arnab Goswami how to have the last word!

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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