Much More Than Just the Election Commission's Reputation Is at Stake

While it is not the EC's job to see that the ballot boxes in Gujarat produce a verdict commensurate with the angry mood, it should go to any lengths to ensure a level playing field.

Election Commission. Credit: PTI

It is just as well that the Chief Election Commissioner, A.K. Joti, clarified the other day that the recent civic polls in Uttar Pradesh were conducted not by the Election Commission of India (EC) but by the state election authority. The UP electoral verdict came under a shadow of doubt once it became evident that the ruling party (in Delhi and Lucknow) had won mostly in those places where the EVMs were used and had lost decisively where the voters were given ballot papers. We were further informed that the Lucknow election authority had, in fact, used an older EVM model – M1 – and, not M2, used by the Central Election Commission (CEC); Mr Joti had added, rather meaningfully, that the CEC had not used the M1s since 2006, inviting an inference about the possibility of tinkering and manipulation of the older machines used in the UP polls. The clarification went quite a way in firewalling, for now, the EC’s institutional reputation.

That reputation took a definite knock when the EC appeared to have gone out of its way to accommodate the ruling party (in Ahmedabad and Delhi) in the matter of the Gujarat assembly poll schedule. There was an inexplicable delay, which was used by the prime minister to do a bit of extra-electioneering at the taxpayers’ expense as there was no model code of conduct; the Opposition voices were left wondering about the EC’s impartiality. The commission had done its own bit of explaining but it did not quite add up.

In this context, it was reassuring to receive the CEC’s assurance that the Nirvachan Sadan would ensure a random vote-count on the EVMs and the slips of voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) at one polling station in each of Gujarat’s 182 assembly constituencies. Mr. Joti hoped that this exercise would hopefully “maintain faith of the people in the EVM/VVPAT system”.  This is small comfort, if at all.

Also read: Unlike in Gujarat, EC Did Not Delay Assembly Polls in Flood-Affected Jammu and Kashmir in 2014

Much more than the EVM’s uncorruptibility, what is at stake is the EC’s reputation as the custodian of the electoral process and its integrity. And, it is that reputation that has taken a beating. This is not the first time that the impartiality of a CEC has been questioned; in 2002, the religious affinity of the then CEC itself was invoked to question his impartiality. In the current case, it is perhaps unfair for anyone to suggest that just because Mr. Joti once belonged to the Gujarat IAS fraternity and had worked in the past closely with and in position of confidence and political patronage with the ruling coterie in Gandhinagar, he would somehow be less than scrupulously impartial in overseeing the Gujarat poll vote.

Our entire democratic project is crucially dependent upon an electoral process’ ability to somehow align itself with the public mood. Credit: PTI

At the same time, it simply cannot be overlooked that the stakes are extremely high in the Gujarat battle, and that this contest has become an all-too-consuming an affair; and, it would be unrealistic to assume that the demands – some fair, mostly unfair – would not be made on the EC; attempts would, indeed, be made on it to make it dilute its integrity as a neutral umpire. What adds to the general disquiet is the reputation the ruling establishment in Delhi has built for itself as a bunch of political operatives, unsentimentally, relentlessly and unapologetically, devoted to capturing power at all costs and by all means, fair or foul. Because the ruling clique has notched up several impressive electoral victories, its very success is deemed to settle all questions about the political ethics of a joyful pursuit of the saam, daam, dand  bhed, amorality. When even the judiciary is called upon, shrilly and crudely, to recognise the electoral invincibility of this political juggernaut, the EC is simply expected to fall in line, of its own volition and out of its own sense of opportunistic pragmatism. It is in such moments that institutions are tested. And the EC is being tested.

There is absolutely no doubt that Gujarat has become a battleground for a clash of two contending temperaments – an ill-liberal proprietorial  possessiveness pitted against an authentic popular uprising. On the one side, there is an arrogance at work. There is a sense of resentment – shared from the seniormost leader to the juniormost karyakarta – that how dare the BJP’s rivals pitch their tents in the Gujarat territory. Gujarat is ours; we have nurtured it and have incited the Gujaratis to subscribe to a heady gaurav-maya sub-nationalism; and we intend to keep it in our column. There is a tinge of righteousness, a barely concealed anger and an open arrogant assertion that come this December 18, the BJP would be back in business in Gandhinagar. After all, it was Gujarat that went and conquered Delhi and now what cheek those defeated Delhi-wallahs have, coming here to challenge us on our own home ground.

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This democratic challenge is resented; there is even a more edgy resentment that the BJP has been forced to defend its record in its own sultanate. The very need to field the entire Union cabinet in every mohalla and every one of our chief ministers in those godforsaken constituencies is resented. The very pointlessness of the whole electoral exercise!

On the other hand, there is palpable anger, disappointment, disenchantment after 22 years of one-party rule. It took the Indian National Congress only 20 years, after 1947, to alienate and anger the voters in large parts of the country. A vast unemployed or underemployed youth population has seen through the organised lies of “vibrant Gujarat” and wants to register its disappointment. Such souring up is natural and healthy, and a dynamic democracy should be able to absorb, reflect and accommodate this disaffection. The vibrancy and energy that new actors and forces have added to the Gujarat electoral scene is reflective of the social turmoil that has been in the making these last few years. The assembly polls provide a legitimate opportunity to these forces to make themselves heard and acknowledged. The outcome will have ramifications beyond Gujarat.

Much more than just the EC’s reputation is involved. Our entire democratic project is crucially dependent upon an electoral process’ ability to somehow align itself with the public mood. True, it is not the commission’s job to ensure that the ballot boxes in Gujarat produce a verdict commensurate with the angry mood. But it is certainly the commission’s institutional responsibility to bend over backward to conscientiously see to it that there is a level playing field.

Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article originally appeared. It has been edited to meet style guidelines.