For the first time since TN Seshan, the EC’s credibility is under a cloud.
The Modi biopic may have been stopped — but there's no word on NaMo TV. Meanwhile, 66 former civil servants have written to the President, expressing their distress at misuse, abuse and blatant disregard for the Model Code of Conduct (MCC).
It looks imposing. But why isn't its writ being taken more seriously? And why isn't the EC punishing offenders more imposingly? (Source: India Today)
The role of the Election Commission of India (ECI) has come under serious scrutiny for the first time since the days of its former head, TN Seshan (1990-96). This scrutiny is for an apparent failure to check violations of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) and ensure a level playing field.
The most blatant instance is the alleged misuse of official machinery — the Income Tax (I-T) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) — in targeting Opposition ranks for raids. Since the MCC came into force on March 10, at least four such parties, the Congress, TDP, DMK and JD(S), were raided before the ECI issued an advisory to these agencies to maintain neutrality, impartiality and non-discrimination.
Violation of MCC
Another glaring example is that of NaMo TV — which appeared mysteriously after the MCC came into force and started beaming back-to-back speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, apparently without licence or official sanction, on all DTH platforms. It beamed such speeches even after the deadline for canvassing ended at 5pm on Tuesday for the first phase of polling. On Wednesday, the BJP admitted that NaMo TV belongs to it, but no action has followed yet.
The ECI issued a seven-page order about ‘political content in electronic media’ on Wednesday, stopping the release of films ‘PM Narendra Modi’, ‘Laxmi's NTR’ and ‘Udyama Simham’ until the election period but maintained silence on NaMo TV.
There have been several instances of communalising electioneering as well. The Prime Minister himself said Congress president Rahul Gandhi picked Wayanad in Kerala for contesting because Hindus are in a minority there. BJP president Amit Shah went a step further, likening Wayanad to Pakistan when he said in a rally: “Is it in Pakistan?” The UP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, joined in too, evoking ‘Ali and Bajrangbali’ on April 9 in rallies in Meerut and Bareilly.
Crossing the line? Amit Shah has likened Wayanad to Pakistan. (Source: PTI)
From the Opposition, BSP leader Mayawati too crossed the line when she asked the Muslims not to split their votes. All that the ECI has done is seek reports from the respective chief electoral officers (CEOs). The ECI did censure Yogi for describing the Indian Army as ‘Modiji ki sena’ — but yet another BJP leader, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, repeated the same and got away with it.
As for the misuse of the armed forces in campaigning, despite specific orders of the ECI, the Prime Minister himself asked first-time voters in Aurangabad and Latur in Maharashtra on Tuesday to dedicate their vote to the martyrs of Pulwama and the heroes of the Balakot air-strike.
Strangely, the ECI’s own ads in newspapers on Tuesday apparently carried photographs of the armed forces, asking people, “Ready to vote in the Lok Sabha election 2019?”
EC’s delayed action — and dilatory approach?
For decades, a dedicated cell to monitor media (electronic, print and others) springs into action (24x7) at election time. Since most of the alleged violations mentioned earlier have been broadcast live and published widely, it is unlikely that the ECI is ignorant or needs to confirm from the CEOs in order to act, which seems the case now.
A similar approach is evident in the case of NaMo TV too. First, it asked the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry about the status of NaMo TV and then, the CEO of Delhi about whether its content are pre-certified.
Its directive to Doordarshan (DD) to ensure a balance airtime to political parties came only after newspaper reports pointed this out, while it is an age-old practice to fix such airtime for each political party well in advance.
The ECI’s role in giving a clean chit to PM Modi’s address to the nation about ‘Mission Shakti’ too has come under criticism. Among others, 66 former civil servants wrote to the President of India, saying that propriety demanded that this announcement should have been left to the scientists when the MCC was operative.
TN Seshan’s legacy under a cloud
Old-timers would recall how TN Seshan (1990-96) transformed the Election Commission into a powerful watchdog in order to clean up the electoral process and ensure a level playing field. He put a limit on electoral spending and forced candidates and parties to declare their expenses, hold elections for their office bearers, stopped misuse of government resources and also forced voters to use identity cards.
Pointing a finger: TN Seshan is credited with transforming the Election Commission of India. (Source: PTI)
Since then, the ECI has acquitted itself well — until 20 AAP legislators were disqualified on flimsy grounds of holding an ‘office of profit’ in January 2018, which was overturned later with the intervention of the Delhi High Court.
It is now for the ECI to ensure that its credibility and ability to conduct a free and fair election are restored.