Compromised, toothless, lethargic, weak – these are just some of the words that have been used for the Election Commission of India in the last few weeks. As it carries out the largest election in the world, enabling around 900 million people to cast their votes in what it has termed “the largest festival of democracy,” the ECI is faced with an unprecedented amount of criticism and opprobrium from several quarters in the country.
In the last few weeks, the ECI has locked horns with the Narendra Modi government over the contentious issue of electoral bonds, sought action against Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh over his remarks seeking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election, asked public broadcaster Doordarshan to ‘desist’ from giving preferential coverage to any one political party, and unequivocally instructed investigation and enforcement agencies to ensure that they act in an “absolutely neutral, impartial and non-discriminatory” manner.
Yet, none of these actions have stopped the heaps of criticism that have come the national poll regulator’s way of late. It has been rebuked for not doing enough when politicians – including PM Modi – unabashedly campaign and ask for votes in the name of the armed forces; or when claims surface when an EVM malfunctions that elections are rigged in favour of the BJP.
While the actions taken by the Election Commission thus far may be too routine or inadequate for the skeptics, they have not gone unnoticed by the ruling BJP, learnt to have made its “displeasure” known to the commission’s top functionaries.
The commission is also limited by its technical boundaries. There is much criticism against it for doing little more than issuing advisories and censures to errant politicians and officials found in violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC).
However, the MCC, wide-ranging as it may be, is only a moral code of conduct – voluntary and non-binding. The ECI, in most cases, can at best reprimand the politician or government official for violating it.
The only action that seemed to have convinced the skeptics of the institution’s credibility is its decisive ban on the Vivek Oberoi-starrer Modi biopic — PM Narendra Modi — earlier this week, an action for which the commission was compelled to invoke its extraordinary powers under the Constitution.
At a time when the ECI also faces an extraordinary election where blatant violations of the MCC, scant regard for the poll body’s institutional authority and attempts to create a technical fig leaf for every violation has become an everyday affair, the move to ban the biopic has sent out the clear message that the EC cannot be bullied into submission.
It has taken a similar, if not as drastic a decision, with regard to NaMo TV – ordering the immediate removal of any content that does not have its pre-certification from the curious platform or is political in nature.
At the same time, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora had made it clear from the very beginning that the commission cannot be bullied into taking popular, but legally and technically wobbly decisions, to appease the opposition parties.
The 17th Lok Sabha Elections have just started, and going by the first few weeks of campaign and polling, it is obvious that the ECI would not have it easy. Squeezed in between the pressure to toe the government line on one hand, and relentless criticism on the other, the ECI has its task cut out. Meanwhile, the commission also has to ensure that 900 million Indians are able to participate in its “festival of democracy.”