Can the Election Commission play a good referee and ensure a good match...err, poll?

It is natural for political parties to try and bend the rules as far as possible. Even a little headstart is a big advantage. EC's role as the 'referee,' therefore, is a very important one.

 |  4-minute read |   20-04-2019
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Finally, it took a firm prod from the apex court for the Election Commission (EC) to shake off its apparent lethargy and crack the proverbial whip.

CJI Ranjan Gogoi's observation “Mr Election Commission, you have to act very promptly. You cannot drag matters like this......" seemed to have the desired effect. The apex court had asked rather firmly why the commission was not cracking down on the proliferation of hate speeches during the campaigning for the 17th Lok Sabha elections. The Election Commission had submitted that it has no real power to stop hate speeches as it cannot disqualify a candidate. However, the representative of the petitioner — which in this case is Sharjah-based Yoga instructor, Harjeet Mansukhani — stated that Article 324 of the Constitution gives the Election Commission enough powers to deal with such violations.

Within hours the scenario changed and the Election Commission followed up its notices issued for divisive and such speeches which resulted in the violation of Model Code of Conduct with concrete action. Bans on any form of public campaigning ranging from 48 to 72 hours were handed out to repeat offenders. These included political heavyweights like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath. Union Minister Maneka Gandhi and Samajwadi Party (SP) strongman Azam Khan faced similar bans.

collage_042019035837.jpgIt took a firm prod from SC for EC to finally shake off its lethargy and take action against political heavyweights. (Source: Reuters. Collage: DailyO)

It was probably the first instance of a CM being issued a gag order, and the first time that a pan India ban was imposed.

In the past, Giriraj Singh had been banned from canvassing in Bihar, and Amit Shah and Azam Khan faced similar bans for campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, in 2014. That the Supreme Court in its follow-up action refused to revoke the EC ban on Mayawati send out the right signal to political parties.

It is probably very tough to act against political parties in a democracy and that too during high pitched, high on emotion and decibel election campaigning. As polling dates approach and tensions surge, development is often replaced by symbolism. Symbols of caste, creed, religion find precedence over development, and leaders often verge on the borderline to extract the last possible bit of advantage.

A few hours ago, news came in that the EC has banned the Madhya Pradesh Congress's 'Chowkidar Chor Hai' campaign despite vocal protestations. The Supreme Court doesn't seem to be in the mood to accommodate anything or anybody as it has already sought a response from the Congress Chief on his 'Chowkidar Chor Hai' comment after a complaint of criminal contempt was filed against the slogan, as elaborated in some of the Congress chief's speeches. 

EC is also reportedly looking into the issue of Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for votes in the name of the armed forces.

In a democracy, during election time, it is natural for the party in power to try and bend the rules as far as possible. Even a little headstart is a big advantage. In such a scenario it is the duty of the 'referee' to ensure that the game is played fairly.

112439-xudrsntoww-15_042019034914.jpgThe 'Seshan effect' was such that the EC could no longer be taken for granted. (Source: AajTak.com)

For a 'referee' is what Ex-Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) TN Seshan used to refer to himself as. Then PM Chandra Shekhar appointed him as the CEC in December 1990, and the 1991 general elections saw the CEC in full flow.

Seshan was notoriously tough to manipulate so tough that in 1993 PM Narasimha Rao sought a Presidential decree to expand the Election Commission to a three-member body. The apex court pitched in after Seshan challenged the order and ruled that all three election commissioners to be at par in power and all EC decisions will either be unanimous or by a majority. Even powerful regional parties and chief ministers like Jyoti Basu, Digvijay Singh, Beant Singh and Mulayam Singh felt the 'Seshan effect'. No longer could the Election Commission be taken for granted.

Seshan has often been called autocratic and megalomaniac, but staggering voting to ensure adequate deployment of central security forces he ensured the fair exercise of franchise in times when there were no EVMs, and booth-capturing and loss of lives commonplace during polling days.

How effective was he?

Well, in UP, the booth capturing count fell from 873 in 1991 to 255 in 1993, and the number of polling day killings from 36 to 3. In 1996, voting was cancelled and reorganised in 1056 booths against 2614 in 1991. The number of violent incidents at the polls declined from 3363 in 1991 to 2450 in 1998 and the number of deaths from 272 in 1991 to 213 in 1996, 60 in 1998 and five in 1999.

election-reu-l_042019034417.jpgThe EC is like a referee, and it's their duty to ensure that the game is played fairly. (Source: Reuters)

The ex CEC was effective in dealing with MCC violations too. In Madhya Pradesh, polling was suspended in a constituency as a serving governor campaigned for his son and in UP a minister was forced to quit the dais as the campaign period had just ended.

Power is nothing unless it is exercised. If exercised freely even limited powers can be effective. The EC has already barred elections in a seat each in Tamil Nadu and Tripura. Elections to the Vellore Lok Sabha seat was cancelled due to rampant use of money power — a first for Lok Sabha elections in India. As the phase-wise election unfurls, hopefully, the Election Commission finds its voice.... err power back!

A good referee always ensures a good match.

Also read: Sadhvi Pragya has a right to be nominated. And the electorate should defeat her. But it won’t happen

Writer

Arindam De Arindam De @arindamde01

The writer is journalist working with India Today.

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