Monday, September 27, 2021

Eyes on ECI

Lackadaisical approach of the Election Commission of India (ECI) in taking action against the ruling BJP-government for violation of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) on major issues including NaMo Television channel airing, spread of NaMo App and cash seizure is a matter of serious concern. Moreover, the delay in taking action, that too mild and stopping short of registering of First Information Report (FIR) against the BJP has put the credibility of the ECI at stake. The opposition political parties have already started questioning the delay in action against the ruling party in different states of the country since the inception of the poll process for the General Elections. So far so good, as far as the voters’ turnout in the first phase is concerned, it has been good across 20 states and Union Territories. In this opening phase of a total of seven, the challenges in ensuring a free and fair poll, as well as the trend of high enthusiasm among voters, have been highlighted. The drive of the Election Commission of India against malpractices, ahead of the first phase, led to seizures worth Rs 2,426 crore of cash, liquor, drugs and other items meant to unduly influence voters. The ECI’s decision to ban the release of a biopic on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its order to stop the broadcast and telecast of political content on NaMo TV channel meant for his propaganda were measures in the right direction. But the trail of serious violations of the MCC and the defiance of its previous directives by the ruling dispensation and Narendra Modi himself raise a lot of questions regarding the ECI’s effectiveness in being a neutral and fair arbiter. The questions regarding the integrity of the elections arising out of doubts about EVMs have been addressed with 100 percent Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails, followed by a Supreme Court-directed increase in their random counting rate from one machine to five per assembly constituency. But doubts arising out of the ECI’s conduct fall in a different category, and it needs to do more to reassure voters that the process is not vitiated by partisanship. The seemingly biased moves by central agencies such as the Income Tax department targeting only opposition leaders point to the possible misuse of office by the ruling party to target opponents. Narendra Modi’s appeal to voters in the name of soldiers – something the ECI had explicitly warned against – was unfortunate, as was the Commission’s failure to take prompt action. In fact, the follow up election campaign of the BJP has again fallen in the category of MCC violations but the complaints of the opposition parties have been ignored to a large extent. It is unfortunate that ECI has feigned ignorance about such violations and refused to act unless a formal complaint is filed against them. While the ECI must urgently respond to MCC violations even without formal complaints from any of the contesting parties or any citizen, the government must act fairly and justifiably. Apart from this, it is also to be noted that the voters in Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and parts of Odisha also voted to elect their legislative assemblies. Tripura and West Bengal topped in turnout, with 81.8% and 81%, respectively. This is the first general election with VVPATs attached to all EVMs. According to the ECI, 1.7% of VVPATs, 0.73% of the ballot units and 0.61% of the control units of EVMs had to be replaced on Thursday last week. Stray incidents of violence were reported in Andhra Pradesh, but in Nagaland the polling for the Lok Sabha poll and the by-election to 26-Aonglenden assembly constituency passed peacefully. In Nagaland, 83.12% polling was recorded in the LS election despite reports of low turnout in almost all districts, while the by-election to the assembly seat recorded 84.35% polling. Isolated complaints regarding violations of election rules were reported, most notably against Deputy Chief Minister Y Patton, who allegedly entered a polling station wearing a BJP scarf and with multiple voters’ slip, although he has now been given a clean chit by the state election authorities. That said, the ECI also needs to look into the complaints arising from the snags in the EVMs across the country. Indeed, it is going to be a long summer not only for the political parties but also the electorate.