IS THE EC A BURDENED MIDWIFE?

The Election Commission has exposed its vulnerability in delivering a free and fair elections, owing to the systemic misuse of money and power in manipulating polling booths across the country

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

In Former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi’s extremely popular book, ‘An Undocumented Wonder’, a newspaper article is quoted that grandly announces booth capturing as history. For that matter, even we thought so, till it reared its ugly head again in the recent 2014 parliamentary elections. In parts of Haryana, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, there were testimonies of booth capturers and witnesses of how the electronic voting machines — with a reputation for being bogus
vote-proof — were taken over by goons and tampered with.

There are any number of claims by people on Facebook who describe with great pride the manner in which they voted “25 times” or more. Such over-enthusiasm to vote did not stem from the Election Commission’s campaign for a higher voter turnout. As always, it was an expression of money, muscle power or simply attempts of a community to help a candidate of their choice.  Psephologist Yogendra Yadav learnt this to his horror when, as a candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), he found that most of the votes in the preponderantly Muslim area of Mewat, in Gurgaon, were going to his rival. He found that the village elders, in allegiance to grand tradition in feudal societies, were voting on behalf of their undivided families. And this meant these gentlemen, supported by the enthusiastic young men from the community, voted 40 or 50 times. There were other areas, too, where the rigging was rampant. In western UP, and West Bengal, booth capturing and
rigging were more organized. The central forces that are supposed to deny the party in power any advantage in managing elections were manipulated. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi savaged the EC for its inability to prevent bogus voting.

Has the Election Commission lost its sheen? These recent polls indicate that it may be so. Though controversies are not new for the EC, the cases tend to disappear soon after the elections. Quraishi’s book has ample examples of the EC’s face-off with politicians, like the announcement of the minority quota during the election campaign and a few other issues. This time around, lack of articulation by Election Commissioners and the arbitrariness built into some of their decisions made the EC look weak and fumbling. For instance, BJP General Secretary Amit Shah was allowed to move freely in UP after his censure, but not UP minister Azam Khan, who is much reviled for his conduct. He was punished for a crime that could mean anything under a different interpretation. There were other instances, too, where they seemed unsure about how they should react to the high-pitched and expensive campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The EC’s power was tested by Modi in Varanasi, where he had a gargantuan road show. Later, they tried to prevent him from addressing a public meeting at Benia Bagh, a Muslim dominated locality. The EC did not show either the guts or the imagination to take on a prime ministerial candidate who was pushing the envelope all the time and invariably catching the bureaucracy leaden-footed.

What also hurt the credibility of the EC was its inability to control the blizzard of big money that was used by various political parties. This was exacerbated by perhaps the
longest parliamentary elections in India’s history. Running into nine phases, the election was a little prolonged. Only the wealthy could outlast this campaign.  Various estimates are being tossed around about how much the Indian elections must have cost and the estimates have been in the range of
`10,000 crore for the BJP alone. By any reckoning, the Congress would have spent a little less, but that, too, quite substantial. In such a high-spending election, which carried on right till the last vote was cast, the EC could not do very much, other than chase the candidates during the model code of conduct (MCC) with observers and auditors. Although the EC seized `272 crore cash and about two crore litres of liquor, this was a pittance compared to what was actually spent. On average, candidates in Tamil Nadu and AP were spending `25 crore buying votes, and so on. This excludes the big spend by political parties that does not fall under the EC.

It is not that the EC was not cognizant of this malpractice — pricing out candidates before the official campaign began and before the model code of conduct came into play — but there is little that can be done till other institutions are powerful enough to take on the issue of black money. This fact is known to all, but no one really wants to do anything as the conduct of democracy is perceived by many as being far too noble to be weighed down by such useless questions about how it is being funded.

In 1991, when the Jain hawala scandal was exposed and the CBI found money being paid off by an underworld mule to politicians and others, the agency was told to lay off as it was election funds. It’s a different matter that the CBI could not really cap the pay-offs and the matter came out in the open.  The rest, as they say, is history — as the scandal led to the exposure of many bureaucrats and politicians.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2014