Just as the seventh and final round of polling in the general election concluded on Sunday, the constitutional body that conducted the arduous exercise has again — and unhappily — come under the spotlight. Differences among its members, now out in the open, threaten to damage the EC’s formidable and hard-won reputation as an impartial and effective poll monitor. In protest over his dissenting views going unrecorded in the Commission’s final orders, Ashok Lavasa, one of the three election commissioners, has recused himself from meetings on complaints concerning violations of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) — Lavasa had opposed the clean chit given to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on four complaints that accused the PM of violating the Code during the campaign. Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora has said that disagreements among the commissioners are not new or surprising since they are not “clones of each other”, but the circumstances surrounding Lavasa’s recusal raise disturbing questions. They appear to lend credence to the Opposition’s allegation that the Commission has leaned in favour of the ruling regime in general and of Prime Minister Modi and BJP President Amit Shah on complaints concerning MCC violations. In the long term, the current impasse within presents a challenge for an institution that has been losing its sheen in recent times. But in the short term, the EC needs to resolve the differences at the top since the tensions seem to have reached a breaking point.
The public turmoil within the EC threatens to make it part of a disquieting pattern seen earlier, featuring institutions such as the CBI and even the Supreme Court. The differences on the bench over the Chief Justice of India’s allocation of cases saw four of the Supreme Court’s senior-most justices hold an unprecedented press conference in January last year. The judges explained the move as an attempt to assert the independence of the judiciary and uphold the integrity of the institution. The year ended with the crisis within the CBI becoming public, requiring the apex court to step in, after the top two officials of the country’s premier investigating agency, in the words of the attorney general, fought like “kilkenny cats” and brought “public ridicule” upon the institution. The Reserve Bank, too, has been visibly under stress with the exit of two governors in quick succession, reportedly after disagreements with the government on issues of institutional autonomy.
With the electoral process drawing to an end, the EC needs to reflect on the charges of institutional weakening, and address the gaps in the law governing its conduct. How it resolves the tensions within is of utmost importance to its credibility, independence. The full EC meeting scheduled on Tuesday will be tracked by all those with stakes in the health of this vital institution in a constitutional democracy.