India’s poll body accused of bias as election complaints pile up

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India’s poll body accused of bias as election complaints pile up

New Delhi, India – In 2011, Hillary Clinton, a former US secretary of state and US presidential candidate, during her visit to India, referred to India’s electoral commission as the “Gold Standard” in election management worldwide.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) – a constitutional authority – has successfully conducted 16 general elections since the country’s independence from British rule in 1947.

Voting for India’s multi-phase general elections kicked off last week with 900 million people eligible to vote in the biggest democratic exercise in the world.

And more than 11 million election officials deployed to over one million polling stations located in every nook and cranny of the country will ensure that the process goes through smoothly.

To administer free and fair elections, the ECI has framed a Model Code of Conduct (MCC), a set of guidelines for candidates and political parties, that come into effect as soon as the election dates are announced and stays in force until the results are declared.

As per MCC guidelines, candidates and political parties are prohibited from invoking religion and caste in campaigning while a limit has been placed on the expenditures by candidates and parties.

Incumbent governments are also barred from announcing new schemes and programmes after the MCC comes into force.

But it seems the ECI, touted as the most powerful electoral body in the world, has struggled to act against violators.

In the past few weeks alone, the ECI has received hundreds of thousands of complaints alleging violations of its MCC.

On April 1, while addressing a rally in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attacked opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Kerala’s Wayanad – which has significant presence of Muslim electorate, saying the Congress was “afraid” of fielding candidates from constituencies dominated by Hindus.

The ECI did not take any cognizance despite the MCC guidelines prohibiting such utterances, while at the same time it served notice to Mayawati, a prominent Dalit leader, for seeking Muslim votes in an election speech.

India’s far-right politicians are infamous for hate speech against minority groups such as Muslims and Dalits but most of them get away.

According to the latest count, 70 members of parliament and state legislatures have hate-speech cases pending against them.

Candidates accused of issuing hate speeches against minorities are three times more successful in elections, according to the ECI data.

Recently, Maneka Gandhi, a federal minister from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in her speech warned Muslims not to vote against her.

The recent military standoff with Pakistan, in the wake of a deadly suicide attack on security forces in India-administered Kashmir, created a wave of nationalist passion in the country that has been exploited by Prime Minister Modi’s BJP.

The electoral body issued orders that the armed forces shouldn’t be used to promote political parties. The missive was prompted by an outcry over BJP campaign’s use of the photograph of the fighter pilot who was captured and later released by Pakistan during the recent tensions.

However, the pilot’s photographs have continued to be a prominent feature of the ruling party’s campaign material.

In violation of the ECI orders, on March 27, Modi invoked the pilot’s name in an interview with Republic TV without a censure from the election monitor. When a complaint was filed against Modi, the election monitor officials said they had received the complaint but no action has been taken till date.

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In the past two years, the ECI has also been accused of delaying election dates to benefit the BJP. In October 2017, the polling dates for Gujarat were delayed by 12 days. The BJP-led state and central governments used the delay to announce a slew of schemes and development projects that were inaugurated by Modi in a whirlwind tour.

It led opposition parties and civil society groups to allege that the ECI was pressured by the ruling party to grant it extra time to announce schemes tailored for the election.

On Monday, a group of prominent retired bureaucrats wrote to President Ramnath Kovind saying the ECI is suffering from a “crisis in credibility”.

The signatories included former National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon and the former Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung.

They said they were distressed by the “misuse, abuse and blatant disregard” of the MCC by Prime Minister Modi’s BJP and the ECI’s “pusillanimity” in coming down with a heavy hand on these violations.

On Friday, it was the BJP’s turn to register its complaint. The ruling party said it was “let down” by the EC for not acting against Rahul Gandhi for calling the prime minister thief. It also filed complaint against vote rigging in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh states where elections were held on April 11.

Sheyphali Sharan, the official spokesperson of the Election Commission, when asked why no action was taken in the cases of MCC violations, said, “The final status of all cases have been made public through the ECI website, I have nothing more to add.”

Toothless?

PDT Achary, former Secretary General of Lok Sabha and a constitutional expert, said, “The ECI does not take complaints to their logical conclusion. Once the response to the ECI notice comes in, ECI does not go any further. As if the response is always satisfactory.”

This was apparent in a recent case when the EC issued a notice to Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh known for his anti-Muslim bigotry. On April 1, he gave a speech in which he referred to the Indian army as “Modi ki Sena” (Modi’s army). The ECI served a notice, got a response and there ended the matter.

Sharan from the ECI told Al Jazeera, “EC is working to the best of its ability. We will not ignore any complaints. We are committed to making sure that the elections are conducted in a free, impartial manner.”

Last week, the EC banned Bollywood biopic on Modi and ordered to stop the airing of a channel called NaMo TV, saying it would “disturb level playing field”.

Although the MCC sets a limit for how much a candidate can spend for campaigning, it has hardly been enforced, says Major General Anil Verma, coordinator of the NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).

“Black money and cash are an open secret in Indian election campaigns. Even when the election expenditure cap per candidate is a $100,000 (Rs 7 million) this year, the actual expenditure often goes up to $800,000 (Rs 55 million). The ECI can’t take action because it does not have an investigating unit to prove it,” he said.

Organisations such as ADR have been calling for reforms to strengthen the poll body but successive governments have dragged their feet.

But N Gopalaswami, former Chief Election Commissioner says it is wrong to question the intention of the EC. He says, “No Election Commission is completely partisan. There may be some individuals but not the entire Commission.”

“The problem is that ECI does not have a statutory backing to go beyond the notices. It does not have the power to file cases once the elections are over. It has to go to the Supreme Court to do so,” he told Al Jazeera.

Achary, the constitutional expert, said that the MCC is a product of consensus, it is a set of guidelines with no legal binding but there is still a way.

“There is a provision for the EC that if any party violates MCC, they can withdraw the election symbol of a party. The point is will the EC derecognise the symbol of the ruling party when a prime minister violates MCC?” Achary asked.

The Indira Gandhi years

Political observers have drawn parallel between Modi and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – who briefly imposed a state of emergency and disrupted India’s only democratic process in late 1970s.

She was accused of electoral malpractice in 1971 elections but the EC failed to act against her. She was later disqualified her as Member of Parliament after her opponent approached a court.

In 1989, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) RVS Peri Sastri introduced a wide-ranging electoral reforms, including reducing the voting age to 18 from 21. He also stood his ground when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi – Indira Gandhi’s son – tried to manipulate the dates of the elections to its advantage.

The show of power by Sastri prompted the government to make a multi-member panel to the head the ECI – a move widely seen as the first attempt to dilute the power of the ECI and its chief.

TN Seshan, an Indian Administrative Services officer, who stepped in as the tenth Chief Election Commissioner in 1990, is credited with a range of reforms to conduct free and fair elections.

He introduced the concept of photo voter ID and brought in large number of security forces to check booth capturing and voter intimidation, becoming the darling of the private TV news channels that were beginning to sprout in the years after India opened its economy.

“In the 90s, TN Seshan was one Election Commissioner who showed how powerful the ECI is. In his time, political parties were afraid of the ECI, especially those parties that were known for booth capturing. It became impossible for them to continue as before,” Achary said.

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