Giving Election Commission more teeth

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Better remain silent, better not even think, if you are not prepared to act.

-b Annie Besant

 

The Election Commission has been under attack from several quarters including opposition parties over regular glitches in EVMs and its alleged soft outlook towards the ruling party’s electoral transgressions. And finally, the poll panel woke up from slumber and salved some of its reputation by cracking the whip on four senior politicians for breaching the Model Code of Conduct. The EC move comes amid a welter of statements made by leaders of various parties in campaign hustings that are seen to be divisive and causing hatred towards communities. While the poll panel has barred UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and SP leader Azam Khan from campaigning for 72 hours, BSP chief Mayawati and Union Minister Maneka Gandhi have been similarly banned for 48 hours. While Yogi Adityanath talked about “Modiji ki sena” and made references to Ali versus Bajrangbali, Mayawati asked Muslims to vote as a bloc for her mahagathbandhan with the Samajwadi Party. The Commission also barred them from giving any interviews or making comments on electronic, print and social media. But it is rather unfortunate that the poll panel swung into action after being virtually reprimanded by the apex court. The CJI Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s repartee came on the poll panel’s admission before the top court that it was almost “powerless” when it came to taking punitive measures against political leaders. The EC has emphatically made its intent clear to go beyond merely issuing advisories and registering complaints.

In censuring these four leaders for their ‘unacceptable rhetoric’ and limiting their public interactions, the commission has sent out a clear message about what is not acceptable. But the commission needs to do much more when compared to its unprecedented action of barring Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray from voting in 1999. The EC can play a fine balancing role in such cases of hate speech, but sadly the Supreme Court has forced it to act harshly, so that democratic process of election does get vitiated. For now, the EC has managed to redeem some hope to some measure, but not entirely.

Till ex-CEC TN Seshan took charge as the chief of the poll panel in 1990, the ECI was for all practical purposes functioning as any other Central Government department. He left no stone unturned to refurbish the Commission in his attempt to make it an independent and autonomous body, free from any government intervention. Another CEC JM Lyngdoh tried his best to uphold the EC’s autonomy besides giving it teeth. After that the poll panel started losing its credibility.  Now that the EC has ‘woken up’, as the Supreme Court observed, it should initiate stricter action — if required — and not hesitate from taking to task even the most powerful leaders. The present crop of officers should follow the examples set by Seshan or Lyngdoh.

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