Amid the pandemic, a court verdict has delivered a setback of a different kind to the Gujarat government, and to the Election Commission of India. In a rare step on Tuesday, the Gujarat High Court set aside the election in 2017 of Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, minister with multiple portfolios in the Vijay Rupani government, from Dholka constituency, and upheld the contention of the petitioner, his Congress rival in that election, that it was conducted in violation of the poll code. The court ruling was strikingly stern and strong: It spoke of 429 “illegally” rejected and excluded postal ballots when the margin of victory was a slender 327, of an “unholy nexus”, “manipulation of record”, and “corrupt practice”, which gave an unfair advantage to the winning candidate and materially affected the result. The High Court verdict is set to be challenged in the Supreme Court, but it lends weight to allegations of misuse of government machinery to influence an election. And it places in the dock the Returning Officer, Dholka’s deputy collector, Dhaval Jani. In the verdict’s aftermath, the EC has constituted a three-member Committee of Officers and has spoken of disciplinary proceedings against the RO being underway. But that, surely, cannot be the end of the embarrassment.
The Election Commission is deservedly feted as the independent and impartial monitor of a poll process of staggering complexity in a large and diverse country. Over the years, it has earned its place at the top of the heap of India’s most trusted institutions. Yet, it is also true that its stature and standing calls for constant vigilance by the poll monitor against every and any breach of due poll process. That an election has been held invalid by the court is an indictment that needs to be addressed seriously, and institutionally. This is especially important in times when politics is becoming more confrontational, and when the EC is coming under increasing fire for feeble interventions that are heard less and less.
The EC’s rebuke and reprimand even for violations of the legally un-enforceable Model Code of Conduct matter because of its formidable reputation for fairness. Any signs of institutional weakening or sloth — in the recent Uddhav Thackeray election case, it reportedly took a call from the chief minister to the prime minister and then the governor’s intervention to prod the EC to hold an election that was necessary to avert a political crisis — must be guarded against. The EC must act, and be seen to act, to ensure that the aberration in Gujarat remains just that.