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Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Election Commission of India was built on public trust

Amid recent questions about the ECI’s autonomy, a look at how the body has steered India’s electoral history.

Written by Narayani Basu |
Updated: March 22, 2021 8:50:15 am
The apex court's query pertaining to public trust in the ECI remains relevant as West Bengal goes to the polls in a controversial eight phase election.

On March 15, the Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE), chaired by retired Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur, which examines critical aspects of conducting elections, released the second part of its report. Titled “An Inquiry into India’s Election System,” the report evaluated the integrity and inclusiveness of the electoral rolls, increasing criminalisation, the use of financial power to create an economic oligarchy, compliance with the model code of conduct, the role of media, particularly social media and the overall electoral process.

Its overall verdict: A damning indictment of the autonomy of the Election Commission of India.

Flagging 2019 as the flashpoint from whence “grave doubts” were raised about the freedom and fairness of India’s general elections — the world’s largest democratic exercise — the CCE alleged that the ECI was drifting away from Article 324, which gives the Commission plenipotentiary powers to steer the electoral process.

This is a far cry from the values with which the watchdog body was established in 1950. In 1952, free India went to the polls for the first time, choosing to dive straight into universal adult suffrage. Critics muttered loudly about gambles, but the man who designed the system was more restrained, terming the first general elections as an “experiment in democracy.” A cautious Bengali and a gold medallist in mathematics, Sukumar Sen confronted a task that would make any man quake. As India’s first Chief Election Commissioner, he had to construct the electoral framework from scratch. This meant ensuring that 176 million citizens, nearly 85 per cent of whom were illiterate, would have a say in the democratic effort. Logistically speaking, it meant choosing symbols for political parties and sites for polling stations; it meant introducing indelible ink to prevent fraud and plotting ways to cover every inch of India’s vast, often difficult terrain. It also meant working to reduce the erasure of women and educating the public about the importance of their votes.

The first general elections were not just a democratic experiment, but an indicator of immense public faith. Indian democracy has never been the easiest concept to implement. At the best of times, it has been a flawed and fragmented vision. Elections across the years have been marked by violence and allegations of corruption, but they have continued to be held. The steel framework that Sen built seems to have become rusty of late, gnawed away by corruption and complacency, with occasional flashes of hope, such as during the tenures of TN Seshan and James Michael Lyngdoh.

Between 1990-1996, as the 10th Election Commissioner, Seshan implemented the model code of conduct, reining in muscle and monetary power in elections. During his time as CEC, contestants were required to submit full accounts of their expenses for scrutiny. Those who didn’t abide by polling rules were arrested, and officials who displayed biases towards candidates were promptly suspended. Significantly, Seshan prohibited election propaganda based on religion and caste-based hatred, cancelling the Punjab elections in 1991 to ensure that the poll process was not vitiated by violence.

Lyngdoh presided over the institution from 2001 to 2004 — an unenviable time to be CEC, with riots in Gujarat in 2002. In the aftermath of the riots, the then chief minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi prematurely dissolved the assembly. There was reportedly immense pressure on the EC to hold elections earlier than intended, but Lyngdoh held out, insisting that polls could not be held when the state had not yet recovered from the violence of the riots.

Cut to 2019, with the EC announcing seven phase elections during the peak of summer, there were allegations that the EC had handed out “clean chits” despite provocative political statements. The agency informed an outraged Supreme Court that its powers were limited against candidates who made hate and religious speeches during the election campaign. At the time, the court demanded to know whether the EC was, in fact, calling itself “toothless”.

The apex court’s query pertaining to public trust in the ECI remains relevant as West Bengal goes to the polls in a controversial eight phase election. The first report of the Citizens’ Commission on Elections had come out on January 30, but there has been radio silence from the ECI. Remarking on the silence, Wajahat Habibullah, vice-chair of the CCE, observed that while earlier CECs would offer the Commission their time to discuss its reports, there was “an air of closed doors” around the political and civic edifices at this time.

Between 1975 to 1977, democracy was suspended altogether when Indira Gandhi declared Emergency. Yet, elections have continued to be held, stoked by popular faith in a concept which the EC not only symbolises, but has a duty to implement. The success story of India’s first general election is one that deserves to be remembered – for its scope, its scale, the logistics and social issues involved in constructing an enduring civic edifice. But the story could not have been stitched together without the thread of public faith.

The EC, in 2021, would do well to pick up its dropped stitches.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 22, 2021 under the title ‘A matter of trust’. Narayani Basu is a historian and author, most recently, of VP Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India

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