Is Election Commission losing much of its sheen?

Has the reverence quotient for India’s election custodian taken a severe beating this time?

Pankaj Sharma and Rohit Joshi/Zee Research Group

Has the reverence quotient for India’s election custodian taken a severe beating this time?

If the plethora of statements by leading politicians cutting across party lines was any indication, then for sure the Election Commission of India (ECI) has lost much of its sheen. As the ongoing elections enter into the final stage, the number of contestants disregarding ECI has grown by leaps and bounds.

Perhaps for the first time in the history of Lok Sabha elections, politicians have challenged the commission to act against them. This bravado flies in the face of the tradition of any and every politician keen to be seen on the right side of the election watchdog.
This election, however, it is an all together different story. A record long schedule has kept EC bosses on the tenterhooks while restless politicians have chosen to use the vital instrument of democracy as a tool to score political points. The general silence on part of the election watchdog has added fuel to the fire.

The ECI has been accused of being partisan left, right and centre. Its supporters would cite this as a proof of neutrality but the negative tone and tonality towards it is hard to miss. More so, since at the forefront of the attack are no ordinary leaders but party bigwigs across the political spectrum.

The list of such leaders who have openly targeted the Commission include BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, Trinamool Congress’ chief Mamata Banerjee and senior Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan.
Recently, while addressing a rally in Asansol (West Bengal), Modi stated, “I am leveling a serious charge against the Election Commission. You have failed to stop rigging and violence in West Bengal, Bihar and parts of western Uttar Pradesh. If you feel what I am saying now is wrong, then you are free to lodge another case against me.”

Earlier ECI booked Modi on a complaint by Congress accusing the Gujarat Chief Minister of having violated the code of conduct by addressing an impromptu press conference on a polling day just after casting his vote in Vadodara. An FIR was ordered even as local police held that the press conference was held at a safe distance from the booth.

The trouble this time has been that that the warring political parties have been courting the commission on the slightest pretext. Any delay in response has resulted in the complainant crying hoarse and raising the victim banner.

Similarly, confronting ECI, Khan iterated, "EC is not the god of politics". He challenged ECI to cancel his membership to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. Mamata Banerjee also dared the poll panel to act against her, claiming that she is prepared to be arrested.

Ever since the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) came into effect, about 17 leaders have been served notice by the ECI. In the ongoing polls, maximum six leaders from Congress booked for violation of MCC, followed by five from BJP and three from Samajwadi Party.

The list includes some notable political faces like Narendra Modi, Parkash Singh Badal, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Pawar, Beni Prasad Verma and Azam Khan. However, despite charged with violation of MCC, no one has faced any penal action so far. In most of the cases, the commission has let them go free with only a warning.

It seems that ECI has no established mechanism in place to crack the whip on errant politicians. For instance, ECI on April 11 barred BJP’s Amit Shah and SP’s Azam Khan from UP public rallies. Within a week on April 17, the poll panel revoked Shah’s ban. However, the ban on Khan hasn’t been removed. A free Shah quoted another controversy soon thereafter while as Khan continues to be accused of playing communal politics.

Recently, in a letter to Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) VS Sampath, JD (U) general secretary K C Tyagi also alleged that the poll panel failed in controlling hate speeches.

Do we need a tough CEC to act against the wayward politicians? Does Sampath need to take a leaf out of TN Seshan’s tenure when the institution was operating at its peak?

The institution came to life during Seshan’s tenure as the CEC between 1990 and 1996. He was the first leader of ECI to order re-polls in areas where polling irregularities were brought to the notices of the commission and undertook serious action against those found guilty of malpractices. In May 1991, the election of the then CM of UP Mulayam Singh was countermanded for violation of MCC.

Has ECI bogged down by a longish election schedule or is it lack of communication which is halting them from sending the clear message?

The poll panel which announced the poll schedule on March 5 hasn’t conducted any press conference since then. Although the ongoing elections are a hit among netizens, yet the ECI is not there on social media to answer their queries.