Spats between the Election Commission and political parties are not new. But the commission is now in the eye of a storm — it is being accused of having been partisan. Sonia Sarkar looks at the rumpus


The Twitterati — which has a phrase for every occasion — puts it pithily. “EC=10 Sampath,” the wags say, indicating that chief election commissioner (CEC) V.S. Sampath is acting under the orders of 10 Janpath, the residence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

The focus — in the virtual world and elsewhere — is on the office of the Election Commission (EC). Last week, the EC emerged as the latest player in the election arena. Under attack from all sides, it is particularly in the line of fire of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has described it as partisan.

The battle gathered momentum earlier this week when the EC denied the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, permission to organise a rally in the largely Muslim area of Benia Bagh in Varanasi, one of the constituencies Modi is fighting from. District magistrate and returning officer Pranjal Yadav had cited security reasons for the ban.

The decision triggered a war of words and deeds.

“The EC is acting in a partisan manner,” Modi told an election rally in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, while party leaders Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah sat on a dharna in Varanasi.

“We are doing our job uniformly, rigorously and in a non-partisan manner for conducting free and fair polls,” Sampath replied in Delhi.

But Modi seems to have won that round. On Friday, the EC appointed a special observer for Varanasi, to be placed above Yadav.

Spats between the EC and political parties are not new. But in this election, the voice of protest is exceptionally shrill. “The EC has failed to be impartial because the officials are under the control of the state government led by the Samajwadi Party,” BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar alleges.

The BJP has been taking potshots at the EC from the time the election body banned BJP vice-president Amit Shah from campaigning in UP after he delivered inflammatory speeches. The ban was lifted in a few days after Shah promised to behave. The fight took a new turn last week after the Gujarat administration filed two FIRs against Modi on the orders of the EC after he’d displayed his party’s symbol in violation of the poll code soon after voting in Gandhinagar.

That the EC is partisan, the BJP says, is evident from the fact that it has given a clean chit to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who was photographed in polling booths in Amethi on election day. However, it has issued a showcause notice to Gandhi for an alleged remark in Himachal Pradesh that 22,000 people would be killed if Modi came to power.

The EC’s detractors are growing in numbers. Among them is West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who dared the EC last month to transfer eight Bengal officials, including five superintendents of police and a district magistrate, during the polls. She accused the EC of playing into the hands of the Congress. The EC, however, won that round with Banerjee when it said that if its orders were not followed, elections in the state would be cancelled.

The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader too has hit out at the EC. “The Election Commission is going overboard. Who has given it the right to check vehicles on roads? This is causing harassment,” NCP strongman Sharad Pawar had said. And, surprisingly, even members of the party that the EC is said to be supporting have voiced their discontent.

“As I understand, the broad philosophical approach (of the EC) is: you should do and say nothing that wins you an election, you should try your best to lose elections,” outgoing external affairs minister Salman Khurshid told students at an educational institution in London recently.

  • Modi after casting his vote

Tempers are high, but the EC-vs-political party war is an old one. During the UP polls in 2012, former chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati called the EC “one-sided” when it ordered that her statues and those of the BSP poll symbol, an elephant, built at government expenses, be covered.

But as with each poll the ante is upped, political observers fear that the trend is not a healthy one. “It is unfortunate that the EC has been flooded with complaints this year from various political parties. The integrity of the EC is being questioned. The EC should function in such a way that it instills confidence in all political parties,” a senior constitutional expert stresses.

Within the EC, too, there are murmurs of discontent. “We have failed to implement our model code of conduct with uniformity. The feeling among political parties that the EC has been partial is justified,” an EC member says.

A former CEC accuses the present EC — consisting of Sampath, H.S. Brahma and Nasim Zaidi — as “one of the slowest bodies” ever. “The EC should be more even-handed — but it should also be firm,” he says. “It has done nothing to stop BJP’s Amit Shah from delivering hate speeches which he has been doing even after a warning from the EC.”

But the EC is also in a catch-22 situation — it’s damned if it acts, and damned it if doesn’t. “We always take action depending upon what is being brought to our notice for conducting free and fair polls,” Sampath clarifies.

What exactly is the job of the EC, apart from conducting the polls? “It has to conduct free and fair polls. In order to do this, the EC assumes many powers. There is no limit (to its powers) as such,” constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says.

The EC, indeed, has a massive job to do — revolving 1,46,990 polling personnel deployed over 31,483 polling stations in 19,881 centres with 10 lakh electronic voting machines in this nine-phase poll.

But it can also be an effective body with teeth if it wants to — as was demonstrated when T.N. Seshan took charge as CEC in 1990. He controlled the rigging of votes — rife in many parts of the country — and ensured that Dalits voted without fear. During his tenure, he reviewed more than 40,000 cases of false elections and disqualified 14,000 potential candidates.

“Politicians showed their resentment against him but he was least bothered,” Kashyap says.

But the situation has changed since then. With threats of violence and the increasing numbers of voters and candidates, the election process has lengthened. The first election was on April 7, and the results will be out only on May 16. Sampath describes the election procedure in India as a “mammoth exercise”.

Many agree with him, pointing out that the EC has a bigger job than election bodies elsewhere. In the US, for instance, different bodies deal with the elections. The United States Election Assistance Commission, an independent agency, is in charge of, among other things, voting information, updated equipment, voter registration databases and other identification procedures. But there are separate bodies for governing elections in some of the states. In addition, there is an independent regulatory agency, the Federal Election Commission, whose job is to administer and enforce rules related to financing the elections.

“Given the size of our population, we are doing a stupendous job to make the election free and fair,” Kashyap says.

But when the bugle’s been sounded, who cares?


Fair or Foul


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