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New Delhi: The second phase of the great Indian election of 2019 ended Thursday evening, which means voters in 198 seats – one third of the 543 that make up the Lok Sabha – going to the polls. Media commentary has focused on the inexact science of voter turnout, with analysts and politicians fretting about what the ‘lower than 2014’ turnout is likely to mean for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition. But there is a larger elephant in the room – the Election Commission and its three commissioners – and about its attitude and intentions there is now little room for doubt.
NaMo TV, the propaganda advertising channel of the BJP, continued to broadcast its election matter to all corners of India, including the 97 seats that went to the polls on Thursday. The Representation of Peoples (RP) Act mandates a 48-hour blackout period for TV publicity and “sources” in the EC told the Indian Express and Times of India that NaMo TV needed to comply. But NaMo TV didn’t comply and since the EC has said nothing in writing to anybody, the Election Commissioners presumably believe they can get away with this gross dereliction of their constitutional responsibility.
As I have explained earlier, there is really no ambiguity about the fact that the broadcast of election matter by a political party during the silent period is a criminal offence. It does not even require the EC to warn the concerned channel or party. Yet no action has been taken and one-third of the election is already over.
Apart from failing to crack down on NaMo TV despite conceding that it is an advertising channel, the EC is also guilty of going out of its way to immunise the BJP’s star campaigner, Narendra Modi, from any accountability.
The EC received complaints immediately after Modi’s Latur campaign speech on April 9, when he asked first time voters to “remember the soldiers who had been killed in Pulwama” and the valour of the armed forces personnel who had attacked Balakot in Pakistan when they cast their ballots. This was a violation of the EC’s own directive that parties refrain from making references to the armed forces in their election campaigning. Though the EC is meant to resolve such complaints within 48 hours, 10 days have elapsed with no formal statement from the commission about the propriety of Modi’s comment.
What makes matters worse is that when it comes to complaints from the prime minister’s side, the EC acts with unseemly alacrity, even inventing rules where none exist in order to punish officials who insist on treating Narendra Modi as just another citizen in the electoral fray.
When The Wire asked the Election Commission on Thursday for the basis on which it had suspended an IAS officer who had insisted on searching Modi’s helicopter at a Sambalpur airstrip, EC officials referenced an EC circular that only exempts persons from an election-related search if (a) they are normally exempt from security checks and (b) are flying from a commercial airport. The field which the prime minister’s helicopter used is not an airport of any kind and clearly his ‘vehicle’ was not exempted from a search.
Former chief election commissioner, S.Y. Quraishi has described the incident as a “missed opportunity” for the EC to restore its image:
PM’s chopper raid incident is a great opportunity missed ! Please see my views. pic.twitter.com/VqOjSVwfmK
— Dr. S.Y. Quraishi (@DrSYQuraishi) April 18, 2019
Two places where voting took place Thursday stood out – Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir and Ariyalur district in Tamil Nadu, which is part of the Chidambaram Lok Sabha constituency – but for opposite reasons.
In Srinagar, the overall turnout was a dismal 15% – down from 25.62% in 2014, but up from the even lower 7.2% recorded during the by-election for the seat in 2017. Worse, not a single vote was cast in as many as 90 polling booths in the city. The poor turnout represents the support that those who called for a boycott of the election have in the central part of the Valley. In Anantnag, which will go to the polls in three phases, turnout is expected to be lower than Srinagar. Conversely, the Baramulla constituency to the north of Srinagar, which went to the polls in the first phase, saw a turnout of 35%. One reason the turnout in Srinagar is higher than 2017, analysts say is the fear of the BJP’s intentions vis-a-vis Article 35A of the constitution. Even separatists are wary of what might happen if Modi is re-elected and pushes ahead with the BJP’s plans in this regard.
If voters in the valley stayed away largely on a voluntary basis, an attempt was made by caste Hindu goons to prevent Dalit voters in Ariyalur district from casting their ballots. At least 20 homes belonging to Dalits in Ponparappi village were damaged, The Hindu reported: “According to police sources, the clash was triggered after a pot, the symbol of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), was broken by some persons in the village. While three members of the Vanniyar community suffered minor injuries, a mob went around pelting stones at houses of Dalits. VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan is contesting from the reserved constituency.”
Thursday also saw the Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee give a lengthy interview to TV18, in which she insisted her party would “win 42 out of 42 seats.”
Living up to her reputation as the most outspoken of opposition leaders, Banerjee launched into a full-tilt attack on Modi:
“‘Chowkidar’ is a household word today. He earlier pitched himself as a chaiwala, but now he is a chowkidar. Why did he change his chaiwala poll pitch? You can’t heat up the same tea twice, it turns poisonous. That’s why he’s turned chowkidar. We want a chowkidar who really works for the country, who we respect, a loyal patriot.”
She refused to get drawn into a controversy over the EC’s impartiality, saying she did not wish to question its actions. But she did say that Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati and UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath – both of whom were censured by the EC this week for the references they made to religion during their campaigning – could not be compared. The two leaders had different agendas., she said. “Mayawatiji spoke from her heart, but Yogi’s remarks were more dangerous than Mayawati’s.”
Banerjee also struck to her position that Modi had still to tell the nation what went wrong at Pulwama:
“I don’t want to use Balakot airstrike as an election issue. I am very sad about the deaths of so many of our jawans (in the Pulwama attack). But why did the government ignore the intelligence report? Why did so many of our jawans die? Why has terrorism increased? There are so many questions. … Now they are using it to get votes. The BJP says it’s ‘Modi Ki Sena‘, but the army belongs to everyone. We respect our jawans. They sacrificed their lives for us. Why should we use this as a poll plank? … We are proud of them. But what the BJP is doing is not right at all.”
One of those who did not vote this time in Srinagar was Farooq Ahmed Dar, the young man who voted in the 2017 by-election only to later be grabbed by an Army officer, Major Leetul Gogoi, tied to the front of an army jeep and paraded around several villages as a supposed lesson to “stone pelters”. Dar, who now has a temporary job in a local hospital, was drafted for election duty on Thursday. Gogoi received a commendation from army chief for his “out of the box thinking” despite illegally confining Dar and placing him in harm’s way.