By now, it doesn’t matter anymore who wins the five assembly elections of 2021, which come to a close Thursday with the last phase of polling in West Bengal. Because we already know who the real loser is — the Election Commission of India.
By turning a near-blind eye to the massive rallies and roadshows at a time when India is battling an unprecedented pandemic that thrives on crowds, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has done a great disservice to the people of the country, and has established itself as the new ‘caged parrot‘.
Its latest decision to ban victory rallies after results are announced on 2 May is a classic case of too little, too late and frankly, too laughable. Banning victory rallies is easy. After all, they don’t help fetch votes for the political party you’re pandering to. The poll panel’s move is very evidently just a case of mere optics in the face of the backlash the commission has received for allowing elections to carry on with a sense of normality that would embarrass even this virulent virus.
While the ECI has not really done much it should feel proud of in recent years, its conduct in the 2021 assembly polls has unequivocally established what it lacks — both teeth and a spine.
The caged commission
The ECI has increasingly appeared like a body that favours the party in power — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The commission, meant to be unflinchingly neutral and independent by the very definition of its role, has done enough and more for questions to be raised about its conduct.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time the ECI or its top officers have been put under the scanner for their apparent inclination towards the ruling party, ever since the post-T.N. Seshan era that redefined the commission and its powers. Remember the infamous and nasty N. Gopalaswami-Navin Chawla spat in which the former recommended Chawla’s removal after the BJP alleged he was close to the Congress, which was in power at the time? Both Gopalaswami and Chawla came out looking bad in the BJP-Congress proxy war, thereby eroding the credibility of the commission.
But the past few years have been especially jarring, with the ECI’s brazen bent towards the current powerful ruling dispensation. Consider these.
In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the ECI was inexplicably generous about multiple allegations of model code of conduct violations against PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, giving them both clean chits. This, despite a note of dissent by one of its own — then election commissioner Ashok Lavasa. Not to forget, the ECI just sat on the complaints against Modi and Shah till Supreme Court intervened and ordered it to act on them.
A slew of opposition parties and leaders — from Congress’ Rahul Gandhi to Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress have questioned the ECI’s neutrality. Sure, the opposition tends to amplify, and sometimes perhaps even just drops hints of key institutions siding with the government, with or without basis. But it would be way too much of a coincidence that a majority of non-BJP parties feel the same way, and so vehemently at that.
Things have come to such a pass that it seems the EC waits for PM Modi to finish all his inaugurations and announcements before it declares election dates and the model code kicks in.
Turning blind eye to Covid
This year’s set of assembly elections have raised questions on not just the objectivity of the ECI, but also on its moral compass.
When India is drowning in the worst ever crisis since Independence, the body solely responsible for the conduct of polls, is playing mute spectator, if not an active enabler, in politicians’ blind quest for power, by allowing maskless and over-crowded rallies.
Various high courts have come down heavily on the ECI. While the Calcutta High Court registered its unhappiness with the poll panel, the Madras High Court went many steps further, calling for its officials to be booked for murder. Let’s look at some of the ‘steps’ the ECI started taking after the backlash.
The commission decided to extend the ‘silent period’ before polling in West Bengal from 48 to 72 hours, and limited the timing of campaigning to 7pm from the earlier 10pm. Perfunctory measures, at best, because the ECI knows just as well as we do that neither does the Covid-19 virus attack only at night, nor does it wait for the last lap of campaigning ahead of voting.
The commission first shot off a letter to state and national political parties asking them to follow social distancing norms and Covid-19 guidelines while holding rallies — the operative part being ‘while holding rallies’ — with a mild warning of banning rallies.
No errant child, of course, cares about a gentle rap on the knuckles. That is just the sign of an indulgent parent forced to admonish a child owing to social niceties.
When things seemed to get worse, the ECI decided to really ‘do’ something. So, it waited till as late as 22 April to ban rallies and roadshows of over 500 people. One, how are 500 people gathered in a crowded space justified at a time when even two can be a crowd? And two, was it mere serendipity that the ECI’s order came just an hour after PM Modi had cancelled his rallies scheduled in West Bengal the next day? With campaigning for the penultimate phase of polling anyway ending soon, the commission has caused minimum damage to the plans of the enthusiastic campaigners.
These, of course, were measures merely for West Bengal, which finds itself in the middle of an inexplicably long-drawn election. The huge rallies and public meetings in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam are now a thing of the past. And let me give just a tiny example of how devastating the ECI’s decisions have been. My colleague Mohana Basu crunched some data to find that in West Bengal, Covid cases rose 1500 per cent in just one month since 20 March.
A couple of weeks ago, I argued why the Covid-19 surge must weigh heavily on Modi and Shah’s conscience. Truth be told, it ought to rattle the conscience of the poll body as much, making it question everything it is supposed to stand for.
These have been hotly contested elections. And 2 May will tell us who among the BJP, TMC, Congress, and others has won. But we don’t need to wait till Sunday to know who has lost — it is the Election Commission of India, which has acted as the Enabler of Coronavirus in India.
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