India needs a national debate on whether our politics is played out and elections are fought on a level-playing field. Democracy, in its true spirit, demands equal opportunities for all parties.
The Election Commission of India and its model code of conduct go to great lengths to make sure that one party doesn’t have an undue advantage over another just because it is in power. The Indian system is quite unique in this regard, making the Election Commission the de facto boss of the bureaucracy, transferring officials junior and senior at will. The level-playing field the EC seeks to enforce is one of the reasons why the Indian election is a model that the rest of the world often studies.
An election where one side has an undue advantage is not a free and fair election. You don’t need to rig the electronic voting machines if you have already rigged the political process before polling begins.
Here is why this election is not offering a level-playing field to all parties.
- Money: The Election Commission has imposed an expenditure limit of Rs 70 lakh on every Lok Sabha candidate. But there is no expenditure limit on political parties. As a result, the BJP has an advantage because it is the richest. The Election Commission wants a spending limit imposed on parties too, but the political class is not warm to the idea. The BJP is ahead of opposition parties in terms of financial resources by leaps and bounds. As a democracy we have to ask if this is fair. A party with more money is able to put up a bigger campaign that overwhelms the voter. That does not necessarily make it the better party. The time has come to cap the spending limit of political parties in elections. Not having a limit on the party spend also makes the election more presidential, hurting the system of communication between the people and the government through the MPs.
- Tax raids: It is an ugly truth that politics runs on black money. The Rs 70 lakh-limit on Lok Sabha candidates, for instance, is a joke. Rarely must there be an MP winning with that little money. The use of black money in elections is not defensible, but the crackdown should not differentiate between incumbents and opposition. Over the last five years, it has seemed that only opposition parties have black money. Opposition leaders face tax raids especially before and even during elections. These serve two purposes. One, they help give people an impression that opposition leaders are corrupt. Two, they hurt the opposition’s ability to campaign. We are supposed to believe that the leaders and candidates of the BJP as well the NDA allies use no black money in elections. We would naively accept this if only the CBI had not given up on investigating the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh or the Bellary brothers in Karnataka. Since the tax agencies are under the purview of the NDA government, do we really expect them to be blind to the political colour of black money?
- Media: I met a voter in Unnao near Lucknow who said he wants to know what the opposition has to say but TV news channels don’t show it. We need a national debate about the media. The Modi machine has turned all forms of media — from TV news to Bollywood to WhatsApp — into a giant pro-Modi propaganda machine. A very large number of people believe Rahul Gandhi is not fit to lead the country because they have seen edited, doctored videos designed to make him sound ridiculous. While a few pro-Modi channels received broadcast licences quickly, red tape conveniently came in the way of giving licences to 130 proposed channels. As for NaMo TV, it didn’t even ask for a licence. Public broadcaster Doordarshan is supposed to give all parties equal air time during elections, but was pulled up by the Election Commission recently for not doing so. Over the past five years, the media has been tamed into submission through intimidation, denial of access and litigation. Manipulation of social media through fake news is breaking our democracy, rendering truth meaningless. The idea that there is no alternative to Modi is re-enforced by the total domination of all forms of media by the Modi propaganda machine. This is not democratic, and we need a national debate on how to fix this.
- Election Commission: Sadly, even the trusted Election Commission of India is appearing non-neutral this election. It is overlooking the use of religion and references to the Army by top BJP leaders in their campaign. A group of retired civil servants have complained to the President of India about the EC’s less-than-fair conduct, and Yogendra Yadav has listed many problems with the Election Commission this time. Why can’t the Prime Minister’s helicopter be checked by a bureaucrat on election duty? Why do the same laws and rules not apply to the Prime Minister? This one instance alone tells you that the Election Commission is willing to bend over backwards for the incumbent and doesn’t care to even appear neutral.
There are some things more important than winning elections, such as upholding democratic principles. If we don’t stand up for democracy now, we may find one day that it’s too late, and it may be bad news for both sides of the Chowkidar divide.
Views are personal.