There’s a reason ‘clean chits’ are in the news this week. It rained clean chits. And they came from the Election Commission of India. In a bitterly polarised battle for the 2019 Lok Sabha, citizens looked to the watchdog to make everybody fall in line. But this mother of all chowkidars – the Election Commission – doled out not one, not two, not three, but five clean chits to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding to the growing suspicion that this election lacks a level-playing field.
Many were reminded of Sunny Deol’s famous Bollywood line “tareekh pe tareekh” when they repeated “clean chit pe clean chit”.
To be fair, nobody said this Lok Sabha election was going to be easy for the Election Commission (EC). Tasked with the overwhelming challenge to inject decorum and decency into this battle through a legally unenforceable and non-binding model code of conduct (MCC) is obviously not an easy job for the EC.
In the recent past, the ECI has faced a barrage of criticism with opposition leaders often committing contempt against the constitutional body whose chief enjoys the status of a Supreme Court judge. Even as political parties unthinkingly dragged the EC into their acrimonious political battles, some commentators continued to argue that the hallowed institution should be treated with the same respect as the judiciary. After all, the EC did stop Yogi Adityanath, Pragya Singh Thakur, Azam Khan, Maneka Gandhi and Mayawati from campaigning for a few hours.
However, of late, it is becoming increasingly hard to defend, or even just fathom, some of the omissions and commissions of the EC — read the five consecutive clean chits to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and two others to BJP President Amit Shah.
When the poll body came under severe criticism for not doing enough to rein in errant politicians at the beginning of elections, some had asked what the Election Commission can even do other than issuing notices to the politicians who seem determined to humiliate and discredit their opponents at all costs with scant regard for an ethical code of conduct. The matter even came under the Supreme Court’s scanner, which pulled up the poll body for inaction.
In no time, the EC responded with a slew of orders banning politicians defying the MCC from campaigning for a few days. But was it easier to censure Yogi Adityanath, Maneka Gandhi, Mayawati and Azam Khan than the big shots of the BJP, Modi and Amit Shah? If you are playing for legacy, then history will judge you by how you tamed the most powerful when they erred.
As weeks passed, the EC maintained an inexplicable silence over complaints of alleged violation of the MCC by Modi. No word of reprimand, not even a showcause notice was issued to the PM who allegedly violated the MCC and the EC’s guidelines not once, twice or thrice, but six times – forcing the Opposition parties to again knock at the door of the Supreme Court.
The EC has now announced its decision in five of the six complaints, summarily absolving the PM of any violation of the MCC in each of them. According to the EC, the PM did not violate the MCC when he referred to Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad – an “area where the majority is in minority.” He did not violate the MCC even when he implored first-time voters to dedicate their votes to the soldiers who carried out the air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan. The EC found no violation in the PM’s casual invocation of the use of the country’s nuclear arsenal against Pakistan. It did not find anything technically amiss with the PM’s statement that Rahul Gandhi “went out with a microscope to look for a safe seat to contest and selected a seat where the majority is in minority.” And it finally found nothing wrong with his statement that “New India gave a befitting reply to Pakistan” – again seen as an attempt by critics to politicise the Balakot strikes.
While the EC may have good reason to believe that none of the five statements made by the PM technically violate the MCC, Modi was not even made to highlight those technicalities in his defense – lending credence to the impression that the he can continue to push the boundaries of propriety and decency in electoral discourse with impunity.
A recent statement made by UP chief minister Adityanath, who has again been issued a showcause notice by the EC over his “Babar ki aulad” remark made in a rally in Sambhal last month, adequately captures the disregard and disdain most politicians have for the model code of conduct. “Do we come to the dais to sing devotional songs?” Adityanath said, referring to the notice. Perhaps, for Adityanath and several other politicians, the MCC is little more than a temporary censorship on their speech – an impediment they can easily overcome by simply ignoring it.
Or, perhaps, in the eyes of those in power, the Election Commission ought to do no more than simply arrange the logistics for holding elections in the country. But of what good are institutions without their powers to tame the untamed fantasies of the powerful?