Many undesirable, dangerous trends in 2019 Lok Sabha elections

Some of the things that are happening could undermine the election process, others are just agenda-driven.

These are elections times. This appears that unprecedented dirt-digging has been a key feature of this election.

The Rafale saga goes on unending. We have had the very credibility of EVMs being challenged and proved baseless. Still, the Honourable Supreme Court's interventions prescribed the safeguard of VVPAT being benchmarked. Not satisfied with this, some political stakeholders have asked for 50% verification of EVM votes through VVPAT. Does it betray an agenda? I believe it does.

Further, the content of the campaign indeed has also been not just divisive but also unchaste and acrimonious, with star campaigners being brought from across the border.

Each of these may have adverse consequences for the future government in power. Let us see how?

Structure of the election machinery
First, let us get the structure right. Constitutionally, the Election Commission of India is an independent and autonomous body vested with the superintendence and oversight of the elections. Elections are conducted through an instrumentality of state governments. Each state government has a Chief Electoral Officer. District Magistrates and Collectors are the returning officers of the designated constituency covered by their districts.

Further, the incumbency of compiling the electoral rolls is with the state electoral officers. The logistics for the elections are provided by the state government. The number of electors in each booth is the domain of the state government. How many voters shall vote in a particular booth is solely the domain of the state government. It could be anything between 500 to 1200, depending on the number of voters and resource and space availability, etc. 

However, as a ball park figure based on time-motion study, each voter in the normal circumstance is accorded approximately 3 minutes for voting after s/he reports to the booth, and this does not include the time spent in long queues.

Effect of increasing VVPAT samples
If VVPAT is insisted on and the sample size is increased, each such VVPAT procedure increases the time required for a voter to approximately 7 minutes. This will delay and dilate the pace of voting. Given the unprecedented voting percentages in certain areas in the first phase, the insistence on increasing the VVPAT sample is an attempt to adversely affect the voting percentage. The political stakeholders can play mischief by intervening to delay the voting percentage in booths which do not have their strengths.

Unpleasant statements
Now let me share some of the statements made by stakeholders. At the outset, let us take the case of Mayawati's direct appeal to voters of a particular community. Indeed, it was not in good taste. Rightly, the Election Commission of India intervened and banned her from campaigning for 48 hours. This concurrently happened with the Chief Minister of UP Yogiji referring to the Muslim League with not-so-kind words. It was appropriate that he too was reprimanded and sanctioned by Election Commission of India with a ban for 72 hours.

Similarly, we had Maneka Gandhi, a Union Minister, giving the ABCD paradigm. my personal view is that there was nothing wrong in this. I don't hold any brief for Maneka Gandhi. But this is common in many democracies. Elected representatives always pander to their strengths. There are examples of this in many countries. After all, it is the voter who choses, and has the overriding right to extension of support on public utilities from his elected representative. 

Absolutely unacceptable
But what took the cake is the unparliamentary utterances of Azam Khan against his co-contestant, a woman. Such condemnable remarks should have attracted exemplary sanctions, But he too was sanctioned with a 72-hour ban.

On the issue of this sanction, his son has audaciously stated that Azam Khan and Mayawati are reprimanded because they are Muslim and Dalit respectively. I also hear that Navjot Singh Sidhu has again sought votes on communal lines from a particular community, which is also unpardonable should attract sanctions.

Bangladeshi campaigners
Another interesting episode comes to light. It has come to light that two Bangladeshi artists have been found campaigning for TMC candidates in West Bengal. This is fraught with dangerous consequences. Being an border state with huge flux of illegal immigration, human trafficking happening through its borders, this is an unacceptable situation in West Bengal.

Ironically, Mr Basu, the Additional Chief Electoral Officer in West Bengal, has informed that the Representation of People Act does not proscribe foreigners from campaigning in Indian elections.

Let us get it right, the draftsmen of the RP Act never envisaged that foreigners will be called in to campaign, and that they trusted the political parties with a benchmark of integrity. Further, from a legal perspective, the golden rule is that when a specific legislation does not cover an illegality, then the general criminal provisions relating to that offence shall cover that.

This is corroborated by the fact that several provisions of the Indian Penal Code have been dovetailed in the Election Manual, as may be confirmed from Election Commission's website.

Going by the spirit of this, the conditions of visa, whatever be the category of visas of these artists, is that the visiting foreigners cannot interfere in matters of state and sovereignty in the host country. Participation in elections campaign is surely an act covered under this condition.

Home Ministry intervened and Bangladesh government as well
The Ministry of Home Affairs should have immediately cancelled their visas and deported them, and such an action would have been legitimate and not have been prejudicial to the ongoing electoral process. Instead, the MHA sought a report from FRRO of the state, who is again an officer of the state government, whose ruling dispensation these two artists were supporting.

Let me clear any doubts here that the Foreigner Regional Registration Officer of the state is under the state police, except for Delhi, where there is a separate FRRO. The report will either not come or the content of the report can be easily foreseen. However, as per last the report has come that the Ministry of Home Affairs had, relying upon the report from the Bureau of Immigration, cancelled the visa and given a leave-India notice to these two artists. 

Concurrently, it is reported that Bangladeshi High Commission also did a more professional job by warning these artists and asking them to report their mission office is Kolkata for further deportation.

Denigrating election process in foreign lands
On an earlier occasion too we have had such instances, not of the same content but all the same denigrating Indian elections processes and institutions. The so-called EVM efficacy test was conducted in UK is still fresh in public memory. But, may I also flag your memory that Salman Khurshid, before 2014 general elections, had made statements in the UK denigrating the overarching trend of the Election Commission and Supreme Court. But these are games in which political stakeholders play and although unacceptable, it is still expected.

Alleged petitions by occupational groups
What has been more unprecedented in this election is the fake petitions floating on social media that several groups with professional and occupational affinity appealing not to vote for A or B party.

First, we had some 600 artists of Bollywood who signed an appeal not to vote for Narendra Modi. Later on, it was reported that some of the artists included in the list of signatories denied it. Later, another fake petition alleged to have been sent to the President of India by retired officers of the defence forces. The list again included names of former Army Chief, Air Force Chief, etc, who have publicly denied it. Yesterday, I received a message on Whatsapp that "A group of bureaucrats & defence officers will make a representation to the President". 

Fraught with dangerous consequences
Such tendencies are fraught with danger for the security and economy of the country. It can be with the objective of derailing the economic strides, avenge Pulwama or tearing the social fabric to shreds.

The question to the readers is, who is behind all this? Who is vitiating the poll atmosphere? Is it an evil design to manipulate the electoral process, which has stood the test of time over all these years. The nation seeks answers.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)