Election Commission of India in Cross-hairs

Election Commissioners
Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar with Election Commissioners Sukhbir Singh Sandhu and Gyanesh Kumar during the press conference announcing the dates for the Lok Sabha polls (ANI)

The Supreme Court’s admonition to petitioners demanding the revelation of the real numbers of votes polled in booths is well taken.But there is a real puzzle that confounds most people.While it is true that institutions of the state should be given due trust by citizens and that courts should not meddle too much,what if such institutions eschew their independence and behave in ways that seem oddly in tune with the executive’s overriding interests arousing widespread distrust?

The beginnings of the present ECI are  themselves mired in some form of deviation from strict principle.The Prime Minister and a member of his cabinet have the decisive voice in the three-member selection committee.This leaves the very composition of the ECI open to question.And for all one can see, instead of justifying public confidence in its functioning the ECI seems to be behaving oddly  in ways that arouse anxiety and suspicion in the public mind.

The selection of the members has taken place on the very eve of what is perhaps the most crucial election in the history of the republic.And it is more than evident that the incumbent PM not only hankers after a third term,but also that he regards himself as irreplaceable,if not as the man destined to rule India by some kind of divine right.This attitude is supported by misty associations in the mind of sections of devotees with the Hindu notions of the Avatar.Does anyone remember how while assuming office in 2019 he got a holy sceptre bestowed on Nehru by some Hindu Monastery from South India salvaged from some dusty corner of Teen Murti and held it in his hands in a symbolic gesture of entitlement?

Given his psychology and the ambition of the organization that has been working patiently and diligently for a hundred years for its triumph,it seems unlikely that he will concede defeat to parties that represent an opposite idea of politics and the state gamely.And it is vital that in the eyes of the world his position has the stamp of electoral  legitimacy.It is also a matter of good fortune that at the moment nations of the world are too deeply embroiled in other critical disputes and concerns to subject the current election in India  to searching scrutiny.The opposition had wrangled too long to forge unity to mount a strong attack on procedural lapses marking so many phases of this election till the very last moment. It has fallen to civil society groups and the public at large to call the ECI to order.They are expressing the unease and worry that are nagging the conscience of the nation with determination and sustained vigour.This is good in a way as the reactions of parties might get brushed  aside as prejudiced and special pleading.And it is obvious that the only institution that has the authority to act as umpire in this dispute is the Supreme Court. Sadly,and rather portentuously, the SC  has regarded this challenge of the moment as something distastefully infra dig and been trying to shake off the burden as outside its constitutional  mandate and sphere of legitimate power.

One understands and respects the scruple.But their lordships should also realize that this has occurred during perhaps the gravest crisis of democracy in the country.If they hesitate and stick to petty regulations during this danger to democracy they might  like the judges of Nazi Germany to slip either into a listless passivity  or active connivance to enable  a course of action that will not only plunge the country into darkness but  the very institution of the judiciary in ill-deserved disrepute.One hopes they will act clear-sightedly,firmly and boldly to forestall such a dreadful possibility.

Incidentally there has been some confusion about J.P.Nadda’s declaration that the BJP has at last cut loose from the apron-strings of RSS.Ram Puniyani has discounted the story and rightly argued that this is some practical ploy.My take is that the RSS conclave is aware that public knowledge of close links between the two has queered the pitch for BJP.In Karnataka the book by Devanura Mahadevan on RSS had inflicted irreparable damage on BJP in state assembly elections.So it is ostentaneously washing its hands of the affairs of the BJP including elections.One hears much gossip in Assam as to how RSS Pracharaks have this time let things run  their own course and stood apart.To jog the memory of the readers one has only to recall the visit of Cabinet Ministers like Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj  to visit  the RSS office in Delhi after the first year of BJP government during its first term and report formally on the performance of the government as clinching evidence of the intimate link between the two.

Such tactics are desperate manoeuvres to rescue a sinking ship.People have awakened from slumber and have  started venting their anger and disappointment  on the BJP government’s breaching its own tall promises or fulfilling them in a farcical manner.Given the circumstances it is not unnatural for a suspicion to arise that the ECI has been charged with the task of engineering a credible victory for the Modi offensive through use of  such expedients as tampering with EVMs 

But while the charges against the ECI are certainly not proved so far  it  has come under sharp focus of public scrutiny.It has clearly shown bias in putting the Prime Minister’s incredibly communalist claims and comments during his election campaign lately on the same level as Rahul Gandhi’s alleged breaches of MCC.It has assumed a peremptory tone towards public complaints by opposition parties and citizens in a noticeable rise of irritation in its temper.And its ruling that it is not obliged to reveal polling data to anyone but the candidates concerned arouses the same suspicion as the State Bank of India’s plea that the details of Electoral Bond transactions are too huge and complex to be collected and shared in a hurry.Since there are misgivings and doubts it could have resolved them in a trice by disclosing the wanted numbers. We are not saying that the suspicion is justified .But it seems most likely to attract suspicion in the way it has been handled by ECI. The Supreme Court is called upon by the circumstances today to prod and shake institutions monitoring various processes of the state into wakefulness.

The vacation bench of the SC has hinted that the discrepancies may be considered by it AFTER the poll results. This,with respect makes no sense.If evidence comes to light of later tampering with real figures in some booths,the possibility will transpire that there had been similar and other mala fide  interventions in all or most constituencies.

In such a case one cannot see how  the SC will be able to declare the whole election invalid and call for another round of polling.Further the circumstances would have proved the ECI itself guilty of serious partiality and hence deserving immediate dissolution.How will the new ECI be formed and by what procedure?

Lastly,If Modi returns to power with such a stratagem,will he step down quietly?

All things considered, the doubts and questions need to be settled to the satisfaction of the public BEFORE Poll results.

Hiren Gohain is a political commentator                   

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