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Millennium Post

No straw poll

Curbing malpractices during election season is one of the dreaded tasks which India’s prestigious body — the Election Commission (EC) — is solely responsible for, while simultaneously conducting ‘free and fair’ elections across the country. In the current scenario as India sets out to elect it 16th Lok Sabha, with tempers rising across the political spectrum, the EC plays a crucial role in controlling miscreants from flaying rules.

The latest fracas between the commission and a belligerent BJP leadership over providing permission for the political functions of party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi only goes to show that the poll panel has not only to behave in a just manner but be also seen to be just.

Since the very beginning, the country has been hooked on to the current nine-phase election schedule this summer which has been spread over 36 days as an electorate of 81.4 crore elects members for the 16th Lok Sabha. The polling dates have been spread over from 7 April to 12 May. While the climax or the final result after counting of votes in all the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies will be done and declared on 16 May. The government formation is expected by the end of the month.

During this entire process, the ECI plays a significant role at every juncture. In his book An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election, former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi explains the ECI as a body ‘in a federal state empowers citizens to participate actively in the democratic process, as well as promotes transparency and accountability in politics.’ The ECI, according to him is the ‘watchdog of democracy’.
But the current elections have had immense controversies flooding the entire electoral process. Be it reports of rigging, booth capturing, money and muscle power, improper usage of party symbols or the highly cantankerous verbal spats between political leaders vitiating the atmosphere, aiming to polarise votes.

Noted journalist Urmilesh says, ‘This time the Election Commission has not been able to swiftly address complex issues. It also lacks in the fact that despite several cases of violation of model code of conduct coming to light, the EC seems to be in a way lenient and soft on this issue. In fact what seems is that appropriate action which is expected for a developing democracy like India has not been taken by the EC in many cases.’

With political rivals resorting to acerbic and highly personalised verbal duels, the EC’s role came under immense scrutiny. Starting from the hate speech made by Congress candidate Imran Masood in Uttar Pradesh, the EC was quick to take action and have him arrested. Then followed the likes of Bharatiya Janata Party leader and a close aide of party’s prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi — Amit Shah’s ‘revenge’ statement, followed by varied Samajwadi Party leaders who went on a controversial speech spree — Mulayam Singh Yadav, Azam Khan and Abu Azmi.

All these speeches were directed at polarisation of votebank in the state. Each of them being hauled up by the EC, in fact Khan being banned from conducting rallies and making speeches, in addition to FIRs against him.

Latest addition to this controversial kitty, has been BJP’s stalwart Narendra Modi’s famously infamous ‘lotus selfie’ which he took in Ahmedabad after casting his franchise on 30 April. The EC ordered an FIR against him for violating the election code of conduct. Modi was quick to respond labeling the EC as biased and dared the body to lodge another FIR against him. Taking on the EC, Narendra Modi questioned the impartiality of the commission and urged them to play ‘a neutral role in discharging its duties’.

Soon after this followed yet another controversy as Modi invoked the Hindu deity Ram while addressing his first poll rally in Ayodhya on 6 May. By evening EC had issued a notice to the BJP’s Faizabad candidate, Lallu Singh, for displaying religious portraits. 
‘Influencing voters of a particular caste or community through such means are violation of the Representation of the People Act and Model Code of Conduct,’ said UP chief electoral officer Umesh Sinha.

According to reports, in Tamil Nadu alone state electoral office had received over 3,000 complaints of Model Code violation and efforts were being made to file maximum chargesheets before 16 May, stated the chief electoral officer Praveen Kumar.

With reports of booth capturing and rigging by major political parties in third and fourth phase of polling in Uttar Pradesh, the EC increased the deployment of security personnel from the fifth phase onwards. The EC had directed that 300 companies of central forces oversee the election in the state, so election could be carried on smoothly.

One glaring incident which came to light was when on 30 April, cash worth Rs 2.5 crore was found burnt in a car in Andhra Pradesh. Currency notes in denominations of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 were found in an abandoned vehicle bearing a sticker of a Congress leader from Telangana on the outskirt of Suryapet town in Nalgonda district. Nalgonda is one of the 17 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana region where polling was held.
On these incidents during the current election, former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi notes, ‘This election has witnessed larger number of cases of violation of model code of conduct, and the discourse in this election has become loud and blatant. With phenomenal spread of the media of including social media, news and views spread fast. This requires the ECI to make its response quicker to contain the negative effect.’

Meanwhile, renowned journalist Vinod Mehta sets aside all the criticism and lauds the EC for the work it has done over the years and this election as well. He explains, ‘The EC is a national treasure. It is one institution of India which is respected all over the world for its integrity. Even in the current Lok Sabha election this year the EC has done a great job, even though they have faced abuse from certain sections. I feel they have done a fantastic job. It is a fair body of modest people who have undertaken the gigantic task of making India’s 812 million people to come out and cast their vote.’

Set up on 25 January, 1950, EC’s first chief election commissioner was Sukumar Sen, a civil servant who served in the organisation from 21 March, 1950, to 19 December, 1958. Sen successfully conducted India’s first two general elections in 1951–52 and 1957.

The commission is essentially an autonomous body, which is constitutionally vested with federal authority responsible for administering all the electoral processes in the country.
One of the most crucial and significant roles essayed by the EC is dual pronged in conducting ‘free and fair’ elections across India smoothly juxtaposed with managing and controlling precarious malpractices like violation of Model Code of Conduct. Whether it is censuring election speeches or keeping a check on paid news and money laundering during elections, the EC is under immense pressure apart from conducting elections to having them being carried out in a free and fair manner. One important aspect to secure booth capturing is management of security and beefing it up.

Explaining this dual role Quraishi says, ‘It is a challenging job for the EC to carry this dual responsibility. It is not only about management while conducting elections in the country but also ensuring security for enabling maximum voter participation. It is integral for EC to conduct polls as well as resolve disputes so that a level playing field is maintained.’
One key issue which the ECI has somewhat been able to triumph over the years in management of polls is handling ‘money and muscle’ power. It is not a rampant deterring factor anymore. Ensuring booth safety is a key issue dealt by EC. Rigging and booth capturing are common malpractices which can affect an election process.

This independent electoral body ensures transparent elections are held in India smoothly. 
Organisationally it has a chief election commissioner presiding over the body, supported by two election commissioners who look into EC’s functioning. Currently, the CEC is VS Sampath and the two election commissioners are HS Brahma and Nasim Zaidi.

The empowered organisation since all these years has conducted elections independently, in a transparent manner with neutrality and professionalism. One of the most crucial aspects issued by the body is the Model Code of Conduct during election time.

From mobilising the youth to vote through various campaigns and creating awareness amongst voters especially women, the ECI has worked endlessly to increase voter participation. 

One of the key programmes started by the commission has been the focus on voter awareness campaigns. After 2010 a separate division was set up for voters’ education and awareness in the commission for which a post of director general was created to head it.
Compared to the political parties in the run up and during the Lok Sabha elections, the election commission is the busiest body functioning in the country under immense pressure. 
Even though reports of ballot capturing, money and muscle power and acidic speeches spurted in these elections, one has to give it to the Election Commission for being able to carry out elections in this mammoth nation, with varied factors affecting the entire electoral process. 
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