When BJP Leader Rahul Sinha expressed his regret over the killing of four voters in Cooch Behar, saying that “eight people should have been killed, instead of four”, the Election Commission showed unpredicted alacrity in banning him from campaigning. Breaking tradition, the EC did not send him a notice.
But before the 2019 general elections, the EC had never used its broad powers under Article 324 to ban a candidate from campaigning. The commission realized it had this power only after the CJI rebuked it in court for submitting that it was largely “toothless” against hate and communal speech and that it could only issue advisories and warnings (EC’s confusion over its own power to enforce the Model Code of Conduct is not unsurprising as the code itself is a document evolved through a consensus of political parties; and has no statutory backing).
Using the same powers it did against Sinha, the EC on Monday banned Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee from campaigning for one day. The EC found her statements warning people against the central forces who might try to intimidate voters to be “provocative remarks laden with serious potential for law and order”.
Two days before the EC served the order on the CM, CISF men shot and killed four people (a fifth was killed during clashes between mobs) in Sitalkuchi, West Bengal. The EC, by terming Bannerjee’s statement as having potential for inciting violence has played into the BJP’s game of using fatal tragedies for electoral rhetoric.
During the 2019 general election, the Prime Minister asked first time voters in Latur whether they could dedicate their vote to the soldiers killed in Pulwama. Now, the PM and the Home Minister have made illusionary parallels between her statements and the violence, blaming her for “instigating people to attack the CISF”.
Meanwhile, the EC’s own use of armed forces to get people to vote has raised questions over its nationalist underpinning. In a tweet on April 12th, the EC asked voters: They (the armed forces) sacrifice for their country. Can’t you even vote for the country? (In Hindi it says: Yeh desh ke liye shahid ho sakte hein. Kya aap desh ke liye vote bhi nahi de sakte?). When the Prime Minister used the armed forces to garner support for himself, the EC found no violation of code in his speech. Will the EC now issue an order exonerating itself against violations?
EC’s conduct raises others questions too. Why was it quick to conclude that the violence in Bengal “was absolutely necessary to save lives”? EC’s proclamation not only trivialized individual deaths, it also sabotaged any hope of a formal probe into why live rounds were fired on unarmed voters.
It is true about violence that it leaves signs to be analyzed in hindsight. When the Chief Election Commissioner, as reported by NDTV (January 23), indicated that “politically motivated complaints against the poll machinery, including the forces” in Bengal “would not be entertained”, it was perhaps a sign of the EC bending to stronger forces . Another sign was when it refused to conduct assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir simultaneously with the general elections in April-May 2019. The commission greenlit simultaneous assembly elections in four states, but refused consent in J&K citing security concerns, even as an independent team of election observers considered the situation “conducive” to hold polls immediately after the general elections. Three months after the results were announced, the Modi government took away J&K’s statehood and reduced it to India’s colony.
EC’s stand on electoral bonds seems to have softened from 2017 when it submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court contending that the scheme goes against transparency. Asked by the SC this year before elections, the commission opposed a stay on these bonds (EC’s counsel told the court, issues regarding transparency could be discussed later).
It’s decision to hold polls in 8 phases in West Bengal does not inspire confidence either. It allowed the BJP to be silent on CAA at the beginning of polls, while Assam voted, but resurrect it before voting takes place in the last four phases of Bengal.
The lengthy schedule also gave more time for meetings, rallies and road shows. Meanwhile, the commission has shown itself to be woefully inept at ensuring coronavirus precautions. Huge rallies with massive crowds happened on its watch and it found no reason to intervene. It did call an all-party meeting to discuss protocols, but only after polls had ended in four out of five poll-bound states. In all this, it has become clear that politics trumps public health.
Historically, the EC has had a mixed record of standing up and bowing down to power, criticism of which has been deflected with collegium-like opaqueness. Now, as all institutions come under immense pressure, holes in its illusory armour have started to appear. The question is: what happens when the illusion breaks?
Another ban was imposed on Assam BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who openly threatened to use the NIA to send a Bodo People’s Front candidate to jail. It only took Sarma an apology and assurance to follow the rules to get the ban shortened from two days to one (the polling day was 3 days ahead).
DMK leader A Raja was banned for 2 days for making an uncalled for remark against the Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami. Raja also apologised, but the ban was not cut short.
This editorial titled ‘EC Inspires No Confidence: On Election Commission’s Many Failings‘ has been written by Tushar Kohli and represents the collective view of the Editorial Team.