The Election Commission’s reputation of neutrality and independence is hard won. Its ability to keep itself above the fray, as it monitors intensely fought elections, is also what makes it one of the most trusted institutions in the country. Responding to the Aam Aadmi Party’s criticism of the electronic voting machines (EVMs), however, the EC appeared not to live up to its own stellar record. It told the party’s representative: “It is for your party to introspect as to why your party could not perform as per your expectations and it’s unfair on the part of your party to attribute the unsatisfactory performance of your party to the alleged tamperability EVMs”. It would have been perfectly in order had the EC confined itself to responding to the AAP’s aspersions and defended the voting machines. But by lecturing the political party on its performance in the recent assembly elections, or its handling of it, the commission stepped over a line, invited charges of partisanship.
That India’s election process is smooth, efficient, fair — considering the geographical spread and cultural diversities — owes much to the EC’s acumen and verve. As it strives to ensure a level playing field, it has faced criticism by political parties even in the past. Its responses, often firm, sometimes strong, have almost always been informed by an impeccable sense of institutional self. This has been so, especially after T.N. Seshan revitalised what was till then seen as a sleepy agency in the 1990s. The EC’s model code of conduct, which carries moral not legal force, neutralises many of the advantages held by the ruling party in an election. While there has been criticism of it being used mindlessly, the code has been an important tool in placing curbs on the use of official machinery during elections. At the same time, the EC has not shied away from censuring opposition parties. For example, last year, the agency had taken both Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the AIADMK, and the state’s main opposition party, the DMK, to task when it found that their manifestos had violated the model code of conduct. It is such even-handedness that has ensured that, over the years, the EC’s credibility has remained unquestioned even by those who may have expressed disagreement with a specific decision.
The EVMs, once seen as harbingers of free and fair elections, are facing questions after the recent assembly elections. The EC has answered many of these with equanimity in the past few weeks. But on Sunday, it seemed to lose some of its famous poise.