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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Election Commission Credibility & Indian general election, 2019

Election Commission of India (ECI) is a constitutional body under Article-324 vested with the responsibilities of superintendence, direction, and control of the conduct of elections. It consists of a Chief Election Commissioner and two Election Commissioners.
 The Election Commission of India (EC) is a formidable institution which has led the world in electoral efficiency since its inception.

For a constitutional body that was meant to conduct elections in a free and fair manner, the Election Commission (EC) has come under the scanner for recent actions in Indian general election, 2019.
The criticism has come not from one source but a lot of sources, including political leaders, organizations and civil servants.  The institution is seen as increasingly impotent in the face of aggressive forces. In fact, Yogendra Yadav, president of the Swaraj India Party, went so far as to say: “Every day I think that the Election Commission has sunk to its lowest, only to be proved wrong the next day!”
Perhaps that is the reason why the EC on March 10 banned the screening of Modi’s biopic temporarily. It said political content like biopics pose a “serious threat to the level playing field as it may create an impression of the truthfulness of such content being shown through television/cinema/Internet-based entertainment programmes/social media”. The EC order came a day before the movie was to be released. The order also applies to NaMo TV which too cannot be aired during the poll period. In fact, on April 9, 48 hours before voters in the first phase of polling concluded voting and when further campaigning was disallowed, NaMo TV continued to broadcast and showed Modi’s speeches even after the 5 pm deadline. It is believed that the EC’s order will also apply to the 10-part web series Modi: Journey of a Common Man which is being streamed on Eros Now platforms.
On April 8, in a letter to the President of India, a group of retired bureaucrats and diplomats, in the context of recent incidents, expressed concern over the EC’s “weak-kneed conduct” and the institution “suffering from a crisis of credibility today”.
The letter described the Prime Minister’s March 27 announcement, of India’s first anti-satellite (ASAT) test, as a “serious breach of propriety, which giving unfair publicity to the party in power”. Questions were also raised over the launch of NaMo TV without license, and a biopic on the life of the Prime Minister which was scheduled for release on April 11, when elections commenced.
Other important issues highlighted in the letter included transfers of top officials, voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) audits, violations of the MCC by Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh (for which the group has requested his removal on account of “grave misdemeanor”) and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (in his speech he referred to the armed forces as the army of Narendra Modi).
With polling underway, the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) has also come into force. But the EC has largely failed in enforcing the MCC. With six more phases to go in the polls for the 543 parliamentary constituencies, it is a moot question as to how many more violations will take place and how the EC will react to them. This is an appropriate time also to review the functioning of this constitutional body and the way the MCC is being implemented on the ground.

What is MCC?
The MCC refers to a set of norms/ guidelines laid down by the EC with the consensus of political parties. It is not statutory. It spells out the dos and don’ts for elections. Political parties, candidates and polling agents are expected to observe the norms on matters ranging from the content of election manifestos, speeches and processions, to general conduct so that free and fair elections take place.
It is imperative for the EC to ensure that all political parties, particularly the ruling ones at the centre and in states, adhere to the Code. It has devised several mechanisms to take note of MCC violations, which include an army of observers, joint task forces of enforcement agencies and flying squads. The latest is the introduction of the cVIGIL mobile app through which audio-visual evidence of malpractices can be tracked and reported.

Elections are the bedrock of democracy and the EC’s credibility is central to democratic legitimacy.
The independence of the Commission can be strengthened further if the Secretariat of the Election Commission consisting of officers and staff at various levels are also insulated from the interference of the Executive in the matters pertaining to their appointments, promotions, etc. It is time that action is taken to depoliticize constitutional appointments and the EC empowered to de-register parties for electoral misconduct.
It is a step needed towards restoring all-important public faith in the Election Commission otherwise India a largest democracy of the world is failing to protect its own democracy...

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