Questioning the impartiality of the Election Commission
The Indian electoral system is no stranger to criticism. It has been a topic of worldwide debate since as far back as 1951-52 when a newly independent India was deemed by many foreign cynics and Indian defeatists to be incapable of holding such a large-scale Democratic election whilst also upholding the ideals of Universal Adult Suffrage. To their dismay, India answered all its critics – consistently holding free and fair elections on all levels of the government, encouraging widespread participation of diverse population groups, and regularly proving its mantle as the world’s largest democracy. At the center of these successes was always the Election Commission of India – respected immensely by people and politicians alike, independent and impartial decision making was a hallmark of this organization.
Almost 70 years have passed since then, and though our country now has far more resources and a much more knowledgeable population base to hold elections with, there have evidently been some red flags about how people perceive the electoral system. The Election Commission, long considered the most prestigious of Indian organizations, has now come under fire from multiple fronts – ordinary citizens, popular journalists, established bureaucrats, and, of course, politicians; have all dug into the Election Commission and its presumed lack of action against anti-democratic elements in recent elections. The EC has also had to contend with the allegation that it has been partial, and biased in favor of the ruling party at the center. Despite Article 324 of the Indian constitution listing many provisions to protect the independence and impartial nature of this crucial organization, there is now an increasing skepticism in the eyes of the people regarding its functioning. This feeling of the public isn’t something that has appeared out of the blue – it is due to a number of recent events highlighting the ineptitude of the election commission that many Indians seem disillusioned with the state of affairs – and this feeling reached fever pitch in the midst of the Bengal State Elections 2021.
The Bengal Elections had controversy written all over it – the lack of pandemic management, the alleged use of religious politics in campaigns, politicians jumping ship from one party to the other, post polling violence – all created an atmosphere of mistrust within voters. At the center of many of these controversies was the Election Commission. From the very beginning, people criticized its inability to say no to the ruling party. The central government insisted that the elections be held when they were, and even though many experts suggested that holding an election campaign in that situation would contribute to fuelling a deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the EC went ahead with the plan, even dragging out the process to give more time for campaigning. Many saw this as a decision made under pressure from the center – that the election commission had to give in to the demands of the union government due to a presumed lack of independence that has seeped into the organization over the last few years. The criticisms don’t stop there. The Bengal elections campaigns saw the use of many unconstitutional tactics to try and sway voters. This was highlighted by the alleged use of Hindutva politics by the BJP, and minority religious targeting by the TMC. While Mamata Banerjee was given a 24-hour campaigning ban for statements that, according to the EC, had ‘religious overtones, it is alleged that not nearly enough action was taken against the BJP despite indiscriminate use of religious symbols like the Hindutva flag. Mamata Banerjee, as a matter of fact, had plenty of beef with the EC since the beginning of the elections, when it ordered an unprecedented, marathon eight-phase election in Bengal and replaced the state police chief. The decision to hold an eight-phase election was seen by the TMC as a move to give BJP leaders more time to campaign. She also accused the EC of partisanship under orders of Union Home Minister Amit Shah – an accusation that the EC has strongly denied. Election strategist Prashant Kishor, who turned a lot of heads from all parts of India over the course of the election, said in a strongly worded statement that the Trinamool Congress ‘Went through hell against a blatantly partial election commission’, that ‘gave the BJP a free hand’. He elaborates his case, giving examples of how the EC decided to split a supposedly TMC favoring district into 4 phases of polling to try and break their momentum, or how a large amount of the seats that the BJP won were polled early, allegedly to give them a head start and influence voters through exit polls.
All of these instances portray the Election Commission of India in quite a negative light, and it is clear why popular faith in their impartial credentials is waning away. It is, therefore, quite important to bring positive changes into both the structure and functions of the Election Commission. An inquest must be opened up into potentially party-oriented elements in the organization. In events such as these, where the Executive may fail to create ideal conditions for an election, the Judiciary must step in and ensure that all activities are conducted in cognizance of the constitution of India. In cases where the power and influence of the ruling party are utilized to intervene in the functioning of the Election Commission, new provisions must be made in order to provide a greater deal of independence to the Election Commission, which will enable them to make a conscious and impartial stand regardless of the competing parties in an election and their respective influence. Indian democracy is at a crucial stage, and if these new challenges are not met with a quick and effective response, then we run the risk of losing the trust of the people – in a system meant to be by the people, for the people, and of the people.
Shaurya Veer Singh Kapoor is a student of political science, pursuing his bachelor’s degree from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. (The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author/s. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Policy Observer or our members.)
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