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Time for Election Commission to fortify itself

If democracy were to thrive in its truest sense, the sanctity of elections must be inviolable. In doing so, the Election Commission will have to be more robust and impervious to any political attacks or judicial interference or superintendence, observes Om Pathak.

Opinion Time for Election Commission to fortify itself-VPN
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New Delhi, First Published May 3, 2021, 9:21 AM IST
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I have been associated with Elections in several manners; first as District Election Officer and Returning Officer, then as a candidate in parliamentary elections and finally as a party functionary and grassroots level political worker. Hence, I do bring a 360 degree view of the Elections and Election Commission of India.

As of the last count in 2019 general elections to the Lok Sabha, India has the largest electorate of 90 crore+ registered voters and growing. The ECI deployed a total of 17.4 lakh Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) units and 39.6 lakh Electronic Voting Machines in 10.35 lakh polling stations. Around 3 lakh armed police and 20 lakh state police personnel were deployed on security duties. Another 50 lakh were deployed for manning polling stations and other supervisory duties. 

Imagine how gigantic an effort would it be to move men and material in such proportions across geographies, train election personnel, coordinate every action, move EVMs after poll to well-fortified storage spaces, arrange counting across 4,120 assembly constituencies. Above all, ensure fair play.

Given the statistics above, we can safely assume this perhaps is the world's largest effort, all compressed between the issuance of press note and counting of votes, spanning around 60-70 days.

And here we are, instead of applauding and celebrating the world's largest elections; be the Lok Sabha or even the five Vidhan Sabhas that went to polls in March-April 2021, we only have brickbats. Why should we do that? Who are we hurting?

I have interacted fairly frequently with the Election Commission for almost a decade now and have very critically observed their challenges and responses as an institution.

Notwithstanding the individual dispositions and styles of Chief Commissioners or Commissioners, most of them have steadfastly upheld the constitutional values and the rule of law. It is in this backdrop that I have set out to respond to some avoidable disaffection that is being wilfully created against the ECI.

The narrative of partisanship against the ECI has been crafted by those who have either been marginalised in the successive elections or fear such marginalisation. They are being supported by social media warriors. For want of space and time, I would not discuss the intent, purpose or funding sources of the media warriors.

This narrative is neither new nor happening for the first time. I see a design and a pattern. The veracity of the functioning of Electronic Voting Machines is a case in point.

Understandably, the political parties that won elections in the past by looting and capturing the polling booths joined the chorus against the use of EVM. They had a lot to lose. The Indian National Congress was a principal contributor to this negative and frivolous narrative. Ironically, it was at INC's behest that the EVMs were first introduced in the General Elections in Kerala in May 1982. 

Not just that, it (Congress) was the main beneficiary of EVMs when they were used for the first time across all 543 parliamentary constituencies in the general elections of 2004, which brought the UPA government to power with the Indian National Congress in the lead. And behold, it was Kapil Sibal and cohorts who were spearheading this charge against the EVM.

As a very responsive and responsible body, the ECI, with Naseem Zaidi as its chief, defended the sanctity of the EVMs. The EVM controversy was handled very well by the Commission by proving the critics wrong. The Supreme Court finally put the lid on the controversy.

And lately, the observations made by the Madras High Court damning the Election Commission of India and even threatening to stop the counting should worry the commission. 

Prima facie, it appears to me that regardless of the merits, the High Court went beyond its jurisdiction to hurtle invectives against one of the most important constitutional bodies in the Indian state.

Coupled by irresponsible accusations generally levelled by defeated political outfits against the ECI is a great concern. Mamata's innuendos during the just-concluded polls in West Bengal must not be ignored. You can't beat your stronger opponent in the boxing ring, punch the referee!

Transparency and accountability in institutions are fine, but what if irresponsible political parties, motivated and contrived social media and misinformed, trigger happy judiciary exceeds its brief and maligns institutions such as ECI?

To answer the question, let me briefly take you through the constitutional schema. The Election Commission was created by the Constitution of India, vide Article 324 that reads;

The Superintendence, Direction and Control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the Conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every State and of elections to the offices of President and Vice-President held under this Constitution shall be vested in a Commission.

So was the Union Judiciary created vide Article 124 that reads;

There shall be a Supreme Court of India consisting of a Chief Justice of India and, until Parliament by law prescribes a larger number, of not more than seven other Judges.

Other details apart, I am only drawing the similarity between the letter and intent of two articles of the Constitution that created these constitutional bodies.

One may well ask, why would the Election Commission not assert its constitutional authority at par with that of the Supreme Court of India, and why would it even present itself for scrutiny before any court or sometimes even the district level courts? 

While the election petitions between contesting candidates, as per constitutional and other legal provisions, are fine, why would the Commission that is invested with the responsibility of superintendence, direction, control and conduct of elections accept any interference from courts? 

Why would the Commission even countenance the snide remarks from these bodies, and why would the Commission not invoke the constitutional provisions to ensure that its sanctity and jurisdiction is not violated? If democracy were to thrive in its truest sense, the sanctity of elections must be inviolable. In doing so, the ECI will have to be more robust and impervious to any political attacks or judicial interference or superintendence.

Dissent is the essence of our democratic polity. Ranging from a casual drawing debate to the actions and orders of the state, the judgments of courts -- from the Munsif level to the Supreme court -- the society has rarely accepted with complete unanimity the results of debates, actions, orders or judgments. Hence, everyone does not need to agree with all or some of the orders of the ECI. But compliance with such orders becomes mandatory. 

Some genuine errors of judgment apart, most decisions of the Commission are taken with utmost care and diligence, well within the ambit of laws of the land, duly tempered with the pragmatism that most the Election Commissioners today would have imbibed while they functioned as District Election Officers during their early years in service.

The Commissioners have demonstrated the highest standards of professional integrity and maturity of mind. Having been a part of the system for more than 50 years now, I can say the Commission has upheld the highest levels of professionalism, surely a lot better than even the most celebrated and supposedly revered bodies, the holy cows of the Indian state.

Tracking the growing and evolving complexities of Indian elections over the past decades, I apprehend a sharp degradation in the quality of politics and upscaling of mudslinging, violence and disruption in all manners. The Commission must prepare to check firmly and resolutely any form of electoral malpractices and mudslinging campaigns. 

It must fortify itself against the frivolous attacks and indiscreet allegations. It must foresee and prepare a range of legal remedies to deliver its constitutional mandate.

Om Pathak has served in the Indian Army and the Indian Administrative Service from the Uttar Pradesh cadre. He is currently a national executive member of the BJP.

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