Updated: April 5, 2021 8:10:58 am
In a large and lively democracy, the Election Commission has a job both delicate and difficult: To be scrupulous and visibly so about following processes and protocols which have firmed up, over the decades, its reputation for fairness. It may be, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said in a poll speech, that when players blame the umpire, it means they are afraid of impending defeat. And yet, the EC must not only answer questions that are raised by those who are competing in the arena, it must also transparently abide by the high standards it has set for itself. In this context, it has done well to take immediate action after an EVM was found in a BJP vehicle in Assam — four officials were suspended, a re-poll ordered. But in another instance, its decision has invited doubts that continue to linger. By promptly relaxing the ban it imposed on Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for open threat-making against an opponent from 48 hours to 24, the EC has taken an unusual step without giving a convincing explanation. That Sarma is himself a candidate in the poll was known to the EC before it slapped him with the penalty, and merely his apology could surely not be enough to bring on what amounts to a near reversal of its own decision and what could look like leniency to the party that rules at the Centre.
In West Bengal, a close contest is playing out between Trinamool Congress and BJP, the incumbent in the state is being challenged by the incumbent at the Centre, the prime minister leading the charge. Amid soaring political temperatures, there are accusations and counter-accusations. Much like the BJP’s star campaigners, Mamata Banerjee has a penchant for the dramatic, she is adept at striking the exaggerated poll pose. The EC’s strong rebuke to her — it has called her allegations of disruption of polling at a booth in Nandigram as “factually incorrect” and “devoid of substance”, and suggested she could be guilty of “misdemeanour” — carries moral and institutional weight precisely because it is seen to be coming from an even-handed place.
That’s why it is also on the EC to take note of a disquieting pattern in the poll playbook: Ahead of elections, in the states and in the Lok Sabha, central agencies, from the ED to CBI to I-T, knock on the doors of the Opposition leaders in the states they control. A report in this newspaper has stitched together several instances, across states — from Maharashtra to West Bengal, from Chhattisgarh to Tamil Nadu. It’s nobody’s case that the law should suspend its course once the model code of conduct kicks in, but many of these cases are dusted up and weaponised just in time during the campaign. The EC must be vigilant, it must take note. In times when non-elected institutions seem unable to hold firm against political pressures, much depends on the poll monitor stepping up to its own formidable record of independence. The EC has set a high bar for itself, it has its task cut out.
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