Thursday, June 20, 2024
Election Commission and Omissions
The fundamental expectation from the Election Commission involves ensuring the adherence to the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) in letter and spirit and, thereby, the free and fairness of the electoral process. In discharging this function, the autonomy of the Election Commission despite its appointment by the government—through a process which itself is questionable for its apparent in-built bias towards the government—is a sine qua non. The conduct of the Election Commission during the ongoing general elections, marked by its silences and omissions, does not appear to be inspiring confidence towards this end.
In one of the most egregious instances of the violation of the MCC by the star campaigner of the ruling party, the Election Commission has apparently not moved beyond sending a notice to the president of the party. Ideally, the Election Commission should have taken a suo motu cognisance of the reprehensible remarks but the notice came only after there was widespread criticism. In the absence of any concrete deterrent action, such rhetoric continues to perpetuate, from the very top. If such rhetoric passes off without even a mild rebuke, let alone any stern action, then what is the purpose of having a MCC? Is it only an abstract ideal or an actionable principle? Is it not backed by the Representation of the People Act, which governs the entire conduct of the elections? There have been instances of it being put into action and severest of actions being taken against its violation, going up to the disenfranchisement of the violator for up to six years. In fact, one of the most prominent cases of disenfranchisement involving a prominent leader from Maharashtra was the use of religion for seeking votes. With the Election Commission not showing such intent to intervene to restore sanity and decency to the electoral discourse, the ruling party and its star campaigners have resorted to communally polarising insinuations on the one hand and manipulative use of religious symbols on the other.
Is it a tacit admission of its seeming unwillingness or inability to act that the Election Commission chose to direct a social media platform to take down a viciously divisive animated video rather than the state unit of the ruling party which had put it in the first place? This too was done as the voting in the state was over and the video had been widely disseminated. Why this hesitation to seek answerability and compliance from the entity which owes it to you according to the law of the land? Such hesitation skews the level playing field of the electoral competition and threatens to erode the credibility of the institution in the eyes of the people. The consequent apathy and cynicism towards the electoral process are harmful to the health of democracy as they may induce withdrawal and passivity among the citizenry. Such a situation also provides a breeding ground for unreasonable and irrational assertions about the procedural lapses in the electoral process, which can further compound such passivity.
One of the most recent instances of such assertion is surrounding the inordinate delay on the part of the Election Commission in releasing the final voting figures for the first two phases of the election. The absence of any explanation for such delay and also the figures of the number of votes cast and not just the voting percentage, has led to certain avoidable suspicions being peddled by a section associated with the opposition. While it is imperative that the Election Commission provides statewise, constituency-wise and assembly segment-wise break-up of the initial and final percentage along with the number of votes cast, allegations or insinuations regarding the malpractices betray ignorance of the procedure.
The difference in the initial and final figures is not uncommon as the actual voting may continue even for hours after the closing of voting time as every voter having entered the voting premise before the closing time is entitled to vote. More importantly, at the end of the voting, the presiding officer at the polling booth gives form 17-c to the polling agents of every party which contains a total number of polled and with the gender break-up. Before the electoral voting machines are sent to the strongroom, the returning officer gives the certificate regarding this information to all polling agents. With this information in hand, discrepancies in numbers, if any, can be spotted and challenged on the day of counting. No instances have been reported of polling agents being denied form 17-c and the certificate. Therefore, the information regarding final voting figures is not withheld from any party. Indeed, for transparency and credibility, the Election Commission must have released it without delay but insinuations regarding votes being added to the machines are downrightly ignorant and irresponsible. Such insinuations create unnecessary suspicion about the electoral process, which can demobilise voters as they may end up questioning the value of their vote. It is problematic at a normative level for inducing passivity but even at an instrumental level such demobilisation is particularly counterproductive for the opposition forces and thereby for democracy as a whole. It is thus ironic that the opposition, whose primary electoral pitch is the protection of democracy, is allowing such irrationalities to abound.
Another set of such irrationalities is around the tampering of electronic voting machines (EVMs). Even here, the procedure followed rules out the possibility of malpractices. Though a technical possibility, hacking EVMs to manipulate the results at the level of one constituency—let alone a state or the nation as a whole—would involve an enormous operation at a scale which can hardly remain a secret. To accept the possibility of such an extent of control being excercised by any ruling party is itself an effective withdrawal from the electoral competition. Have not the opposition parties won several state elections conducted with these very EVMs?
It should be understood that about two–three weeks before the polling, EVMs are sent to every Lok Sabha constituency, assembly segment-wise. Inspection of these machines is conducted in the presence of the representatives of all parties in the fray. After the finalisation of the candidate list, every candidate is asked to send their representatives for the demonstration of all EVMs. After the conclusion of an almost 20-hour-long exercise, the seal is put on the machine which is signed by all representatives present. It is observed that most of the representatives of the candidates do not remain present for the entire length of this exercise. Even on the day of voting, EVMs reach the polling stations at 6 am and before the voting begins at 7 am, a demonstration is given to polling agents. Again, not many polling agents are reported to be present for this exercise. Is it not the responsibility of the political parties—particularly those who tend to cast aspersions—to ensure that their representatives and polling agents actively participate in these exercises conducted by the Election Commission? Their claim to uphold fair procedures in electoral democracy must be backed by such bare minimum commitment in practice.
The task of protecting and upholding democracy involves a firm commitment to reason, truth and the dictum: seek truth from facts. The so-called post-truth times present a threat to substantive democracy as the narratives, perceptions and conspiracy theories muddle the capacity to reason and seek truth. Therefore, peddling half-baked conspiracy theories about the electoral process is not consistent with this task. Of course, the opposition is well within its right in seeking accountability from the Election Commission for its apparent acts of omission and expecting that these are rectified without delay. However, it must be wary of abetting a discourse that perpetuates disenchantment with the electoral process as such. That would be an act of commission.
(courtesy of EPW)
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