Friday, September 24, 2021

Restore credibility

The Election Commission of India has finally woken up to huge opposition criticism over its inaction on comments that politicise the armed forces. Such statements are being regularly made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah during campaigning. Earlier the Commission had asked political leaders to refrain from dragging the armed forces into the election campaign after several leaders had invoked the IAF attacks on a Jaish-e Mohammad camp at Pakistan’s Balakot. But with the BJP making national security and nationalism the party’s key theme for the election, the order was routinely disregarded. The Commission, according to reports, now has to decide whether it constitutes a violation of the Model Code and is actionable. Earlier the EC had also cracked its whip and temporarily freezed the campaigning of politicians charged with violating Model Code of Conduct (MCC) brazenly. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party were forbidden to campaign for 72 hours, BSP chief Mayawati and BJP minister Maneka Gandhi were barred for 48 hours, among others political party leaders. This institutional response sets an example for many others tempted by loose talk, sexist bias and communalization of discourse in violation of the MCC and it is hoped that such measures will help maintain sanity as well as validity of the polls. By asserting itself against MCC violations, the EC has appears to have restored some credibility in the institution but the action appears to be only in hand-picked cases, arousing doubts whether it is only cosmetic and not meaningful. The suspicions are enhanced as the move comes close on the heels of over 60 former bureaucrats petitioning the president about the EC’s perceived reluctance to deal with poll code violations. Expressing grave concern over the ‘weak-kneed’ conduct of the EC, the bureaucrats had rightly pointed out that “Any erosion in the people’s confidence in the fairness of the ECI has very grave consequences for the future of our democracy.” The letter essentially pointed out to misuse, abuse and blatant disregard of the Model Code of Conduct by the ruling party at the Centre and included allegations against none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi for transgressing the MCC. While the EC has taken cognizance of the four leaders for their evident communal or sexist outburst, it is yet to be seen whether it has the ability to assert itself, without any prejudice, when the most powerful leaders of the country engage in similar violations. The case against Narendra Modi and his Man Friday Amit Shah is far more serious in view of not only the content and extent of the MCC violations they have been engaging in but also in view of the powers they wield in the political sphere as well as the government. The list of MCC violations by Modi are endless. Ever since campaigning began, he has been seeking votes in the name of Pulwama attack and Balakot strikes. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath even went a step further to call army ‘Modiji ki Sena’. Such blatant misappropriation of the armed forces of the country for vote bank politics prompted 156 veterans including some former army chiefs to make a representation to the president, asking him to take all necessary steps to urgently direct all political parties that they must forthwith desist from using the military, military uniforms or symbols, and any actions by military formations or personnel, for political purposes or to further their political agendas. The government responded simply by calling the letter ‘fake’ with two of the eight former army chiefs distancing from the letter and one revealing screen-shots of e-mails to counter their claims. This controversy may have enabled the BJP to get away but serious questions raised in the letter needed a much more serious engagement. Modi’s ASAT strike was another classic example of abuse of his power as prime minister during election season to flaunt the so-called achievements of his government. He is also liberally seen to be using the Income Tax Department to conduct raids against political adversaries of the BJP in non-BJP ruled states of Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. By ignoring this long list of violations from the highest echelons of power and the delay in partially cracking down on offenders, the EC has taken a step, albeit a small one, in the right direction but restoring the credibility of the institution needs much more action, action that is not guided by bias.