Leave the poll refree alone

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By Jayant Muralidharan

Thank god, it is over after all. The Election Commission must complete the poll in fewer than seven phases. From the day of notification of the poll to the declaration of results the entire exercise ought to be over in a few short weeks. Imagine the billions of man-hours lost since the country virtually has had nothing else on its mind other than electoral politics. Governments, central and states, came to a standstill, more so with the model code of conduct barring any policy decisions. Also, the Election Commission ought to revive the move to empower itself with powers akin to the contempt of court. Given that every politician and his uncle treats the Commission as his favourite punching bag on failing to get his way, or denying rivals their way, public denigration of the poll body undermines its moral authority and, to that extent, detracts from the integrity of its work.

We cannot have a situation where the losers constantly feed into the narrative of a rigged poll, thus undermining the very foundation of our democracy. It is notable that following the violent clashes in Kolkata last week during the road-show of BJP President Amit Shah, both he and Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister and the Trinamool Congress chief, publicly accused the Commission of bias. Questioning the poll umpire’s fairness and independence is now routine. Unless politicians change their way, the only solution is to empower the Commission with powers of contempt so that its abusers feel suitably deterred. Quite clearly, the present generation of leaders has no clue of the functioning of the Election Commission before the advent of T. N. Seshan in Nirvachan Sadan. In earlier times, a lowly personal assistant to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used to dictate to the Election Commissioner what he should do or not do. The Commission in its functioning at least, if not in law, was fully subservient to a junior officer in the Home Ministry. So, thank god, now the EC has changed for the better.

Also, it may be mentioned that there was no model code of conduct those days. As for electronic voting machines, these were not even conceivable in the pre-computer age. First, few general elections were held with separate boxes for each party in the loosely monitored polling booths. It was easy then to shift ballots removed from one box to another. Also, bogus voting was the norm rather than an exception. Till very recently, particularly in rural Bihar and UP, booths were captured, polling staff made redundant at gunpoint in case it failed to cooperate. In Lok Dal leader Choudhary Charan Singh’s home constituency of Baghpat, it was common to deny Dalits their franchise – Jats would threaten worse things if they tried to approach anywhere near a polling booth, their votes, however, would be duly cast – by Jats, of course. There were other ways to rig the system with money-power. Voters on stealthily bringing the ballot paper out instead of putting it in the box were paid a fixed sum. The ballots so bought would soon be put in the ballot box by a trusted party worker when he went to cast his own vote. There were no identity cards or Aadhaar then. We have come a long way from the time of an entirely opaque and flawed system. Rising political awareness, the advent of the digital age and, above all, a strict disciplinarian like Seshan as Election Commissioner have done a lot of good to our democracy. There is a good measure of transparency in the conduct of the poll. And the Election Commission is now obliged to be accountable to the people through the higher courts.

So, let us not run down one institution which is doing fairly well under pressure from various quarters. Meanwhile, the reported letter of protest one of the Election Commissioners, Ashok Lavasa, has written to the Chief Election Commissioner, Sunil Arora, and which, surprisingly, has found its way into the media, too reflects the new-found freedom of the Commission to function independently without any fear. We think Lavasa was wrong to insist that his dissent while considering various complaints against politicians be made public. The three-member Commission has no such precedent. If it was not Lavasa’s intent to grandstand, he would have respected the practice followed by his predecessors without making a to-do of his disagreements with his fellow commissioners. By patting himself on the back, he has pulled down the Commission to a notch or two, a task a host of politicians were already engaged in. This was highly avoidable. INAV

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