Wednesday, May 29, 2024

It is imperative that Supreme Court steps in to restore integrity of the institution


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Election commission abdicating constitutional responsibility
to hold impartial polls

By P. Sudhir

Elections to half the seats in the Lok Sabha have been completed with the third phase of polling being over on May 7. This has provided enough experience and time to assess how the Election Commission (EC) has gone about superintending the conduct of a free and fair poll. The verdict in this matter can only be that it has failed badly.
All the apprehensions about the work of the EC, two of whose commissioners were appointed just three days before the announcement of the election schedule, are proving to be true.
The EC has not discharged its elementary responsibility of enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) and ensuring a level playing field for all parties. Contrary to the self-satisfactory statement issued by the EC about its record on enforcement of MCC during the first month since the announcement of elections on March 16, the period saw the EC abdicating its responsibilities.
First of all, the EC was a silent spectator to the State sponsored repression of opposition leaders. The national convener of Aam Aadmi Party and chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, was arrested on March 21, five days after the announcement of the elections and the MCC coming into force. The EC should have issued an advisory to all the central agencies not to take any coercive action against leaders of political parties during the period of elections. But this was not done. The income tax department froze the national bank account of the Congress party and later the CPI(M) Thrissur district committee’s bank account. The aim was to financially cripple the parties concerned during the election campaign.
The most glaring lapse as far as the enforcement of the MCC is concerned, is the refusal to take any action against the rabidly communal speeches being made by prime minister Narendra Modi. The complaint lodged by the CPI(M) general secretary against the speeches made by Modi in Ajmer on April 6 and Pilibhit on April 9 accusing opposition parties of being against Lord Ram, “insulting Lord Ram” and “harbouring hatred of Ram Temple” was totally ignored. After that when Modi made a bigoted speech demonising Muslims in Banswara on April 21, complaints were lodged by various parties and prominent citizens. The response of the EC was not to issue notice to the person who made these speeches, instead notice was issued to the BJP president JP Nadda. Till now, that is nearly two weeks after, there has been no response from the BJP president, except to ask for extension of time twice to reply. In the meantime, Modi has continuously kept up a barrage of speeches filled with communal content and inciting passions against the opposition.
In the latest instance, when the Karnataka BJP state unit brought out objectionable videos targeting Muslims which were posted on the social media platform X, based on a complaint, the EC directed the X platform to takedown the video. However, by the time this direction was given the final phase of polling in Karnataka was over and the video has not yet been taken down.
The EC seems more prompt in taking action on complaints about personal attacks on candidates or making false allegations against parties, but does not want to take any action against hate speeches and Hindutva propaganda to create communal polarisation.
There is also a marked deterioration in the efficiency and technical expertise of the Commission. The EC, till a decade ago had a good record in conducting and managing the mechanics of polling and its statistical compilation. This solid reputation has been eroding over the last few years. After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the final figures of polling in absolute numbers, constituency-wise, state-wise and all India-wise were provided only after two years. This time too, after the first and second phase of polling, it took eleven days after the first phase polling for the final voting percentages to be announced. The second phase final percentage of polling was given four days after and there was a nearly six percentage point increase. The EC has not given any explanation for this unusual increase. Moreover, the absolute number of votes polled either at the constituency level, state or all India level have not been provided. These numbers must be available with the EC, since only then can the percentages be worked out. If there is any discrepancy, it can be found only by comparing it with the absolute numbers polled. The EC has not come forward to give any explanation for not providing the full data.
A ‘tame’ Election Commission which cannot stand up to the executive or the ruling party can never discharge the constitutional duty assigned to it which is “superintendence, direction and control of elections”. The shadow of what happened to Ashok Lavasa who was an election commissioner at the time of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections must be haunting the present commissioners. The EC is the vital institution which can safeguard the conduct of a free and fair poll. After these elections it will be essential to take all the necessary steps required to restore the independence and integrity of the commission. The first step, in that, would be to amend the law on appointment of election commissioners passed by the Modi government in 2023. The Supreme Court, which had suggested a different procedure, should step in to ensure that this is done. (IPA Service)


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