Argument of fair play
Attracting tumultuous response from parties over its recent exploits, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has been proactively exercising authority as the custodian of elections. With the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) in effect with the upcoming elections, there have been several infringements forcing ECI to advocate norms and act accordingly. Naturally, it is the duty of ECI as a custodian to safeguard elections and maintain a free and fair environment so that the sanctity of the electoral process is not jeopardised under any circumstance. With ECI, the sense of autonomy that we presume it exercises has been at par with the judiciary, especially in recent past where other institutions have been subverted. And, since ECI is the referee to the contest, it invariably enjoys the highest respect from voters and parties alike. Now, while ECI has issued notices to those flouting rules, acted vehemently and authoritatively owing to its strong policy of ensuring the electoral process' sanctity, it has attracted criticism as well as applause for its decisions. Enforcing MCC, ECI has been vocal on issues where it identified any violation, appropriately responding to letters complaining of violations, to maintain a level playing field. While a lot of criticism has been directed by the opposition parties over Modi's biopic which is, as of now, scheduled to release on April 11 which also happens to be the first day of polling in the Lok Sabha elections 2019. Putting aside the astonishing coincidence of the biopic's release and polling season, ECI did not raise objections over this and further left the decision of film's release on Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). CBFC gave the nod and the film shall release on April 11 unless the Supreme Court says otherwise in a hearing today after a Congress worker filed a plea demanding a delay to its release claiming that it disturbs the level-playing field for other candidates in the fray. ECI has reserved its response and will make a decision after evaluating the developments in the apex court. ECI, while ambiguous in the biopic issue, expeditiously transferred four top cops of West Bengal and replaced Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary on Friday apart from sounding a cautionary note to UP CM Yogi and NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar for their violation of MCC norms. While Mamata and Naidu grew livid over ECI's decision, demanding an explanation for the same, Yogi and Rajiv Kumar were reminded of their "oops" moment. Having been posted just two months ago, Kolkata Police Commissioner Anuj Sharma along with three other cops were transferred in an urgent notice to the state's chief secretary in which they were also barred from poll duty. With no explanation cited, as expected, speculation spread wide whether it was done because Anuj Sharma was considered as a close aide of Mamata. Meanwhile, down south, Chandrababu Naidu grew anxious over the fact that first a district Collector was transferred, then the Intelligence DG and two district SPs, and now the Chief Secretary. ECI further directed that outgoing Chief Secretary Anil Chandra Punetha be posted to a non-election post. ECI's decision to transfer Punetha comes right after he had filed a writ petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court on March 27 challenging the ECI order, transferring the Director General of Intelligence AB Venkateswara Rao. He contended that the EC did not have any "untrammelled powers" to interfere with the course of administration that is unconnected to polling. Yet, ECI, bypassing the jurisdiction argument and unmoved by Punetha's petition which was rejected by the High Court, transferred him as well.
While ECI rocked Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal with unexplained transfers, its soft approach towards UP CM and NITI Aayog vice-chairman confuses the public over its intentions. ECI's apprehensions that these civil servants might influence the polls in any manner (evident from the fact that these transferred officers are barred from poll duty) might be a probable justification of its surprise orders and hence, gives them the benefit of the doubt to not allow even an iota of suspicion to exist when it comes to polling. However, approaching the UP CM Yogi Adityanath with just a cautionary note asking him to be careful next time and conveying just "displeasure" while expecting NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar to "exercise caution in future" reverses ECI's stance over its apprehensions. If on one hand, ECI contended civil servants as dubious and hence transferred them, then on other it could only express displeasure over serious flout of MCC. In public interest, ECI's preferential treatment invites abject criticism of double standards. To add to this, ECI's response on Namo TV – which also seemingly violates MCC owing to promoting events related to Modi being broadcasted 24 hours on it – is awaited. Elections are just around the corner and ECI must justify its decisions or the public faith might falter. If the one tasked with maintaining fair play is unfair, then how fair is the play after all?