We Voters Did Our Duty but the Election Commission Failed to Do the Same

A putrid smell hangs in the air as we witness the decaying of another of India’s democratic institutions.

I cast my vote on Sunday. I was in lovely company. Us zany Indians all. Poor, rich, Muslim, Hindu, men, women and an old man in a wheelchair – strangers who smiled warmly as friends when we caught each other’s eye, as we queued up under the Delhi sun, in a sarkari school in Mehrauli. Complete equals, tied to each other in this one great shared moment of democracy. With a common purpose. With a sense of entitlement.

It felt good. And that little mark on my left forefinger felt like it always has in elections past – a badge of honour, privilege and power. Except this time, I felt I was voting not under the protection of the Election Commission, but despite it and against it.

I felt relief that with voting nearly over the hate speeches of recent weeks will stop assailing my senses. Hope, that something better will follow in its wake. Articles abound, one a day or one a week, saying ‘Indian politics hits new low’. And then the next day political speeches sink further into the cesspool.

We, the people, should be ashamed that for the 45 million young people added to India’s electoral rolls since 2014, this is the politics we are putting up on display. I worry that they will take this filth for ‘normal’ politics. I worry that it may be here to stay. Is this all that my son, and niece and nephew will know in their lifetimes? I belong to no political party. And hold a torch for no politician. Speaking only as a citizen, it is clear, that on this muck, the BJP has led from the front. And the Election Commission is silent.

Political speeches are acrimonious. They are not polite Oxbridge debates. I get that. The difference is the essence of elections. After all, politicians are asking us to choose between them. Plus, we are living in edgier, sharper times. Politicians are supposed to stand on different sides on many things, and tell us, the voter, plainly what these are. But even politicians, our prime minister included, are Indian, are they not? Is there not some basic civilisational inheritance they all share? To curse the dead is not Indian.

“Your father [Rajiv Gandhi] may have been declared Mr. Clean by his courtiers. But he died as “Bhrashtachari No.1,” screamed Modi with venom at a rally in Pratapgarh. Apologists say the PM was merely calling out the Congress party’s corruption. You want to call out any party on corruption, be my guest. Dislike Indira, Rajiv and Rahul Gandhi put together. Call out all corruption. Recall the Emergency as a forever warning to all Indians. But to say Rajiv Gandhi died a bhrashtachari? Mr. Modi, sir, respect India. He was a prime minister of this country, just like you are, and he was assassinated by a suicide bomber while on an election campaign, just like you are.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI/Files

It was brutal and hideous and bits of his body had to be scraped off the earth of Sriperumbudur. Yet, you did not say – ‘Rajiv Gandhi had corruption in his government’. You did not say – ‘The Congress has a history of scandals.’ What you did say was – ‘He died a corrupt man’. It is in your turn of phrase that you abuse the maryada of Indian-ness. Your turn of phrase, sir, subliminally communicates – ‘He died a dog. He got what was coming to him. He deserved this death.’ That ugliness is not us. We do not name call assassinated former prime ministers. We were raised differently. I am deeply ashamed of our prime minister for having crossed that Laxman rekha of Hindustani tehzeeb, of decency, of respect for the dead. But the Election Commission is silent.

Atishi Marlena may or may not win from East Delhi. I wish fervently she would. Yes, because she campaigned on education and health for Indians, not for death to Pakistan. But equally, perhaps more importantly, to hit back at the cheap attempt to humiliate her because she is a woman. The smut pamphlet circulated in East Delhi was a new low, even for those inured to the woman-hating landscape of India’s masculine politics. It sends a message to all would-be women politicians that they will be demeaned and at some point in their career, a man, or a mob, will try to reduce them to their face, their clothes or to what lies between their legs.

Also read: The Scurrilous Pamphlet on Atishi Bears the Stench of Familiar Political Practice

I will not quote from that pamphlet which went out via a paid vendor to several hundred homes in Marlena’s constituency, maybe more. Her BJP opponent, (male/macho) cricketer Gautam Gambhir denies putting it into circulation but did nothing to find out who did, to say it was wrong, to stand with all 500+ women contesting this Lok Sabha election. The Election Commission is silent.

Aam Aadmi Party East Delhi candidate Atishi Marlena. Credit: PTI/Atul Yadav

The Election Commission castigated Mayawati for asking Muslims to not split their vote. Frankly, it was a sensible ask, given how terribly placed and politically disempowered Muslims are today in India. But going by the letter, not the spirit of the law, I say – fine. Modi’s April 1 speech in Wardha runs foul, in far worse ways, of the same law. He rabble-roused. He spoke to Hindus, and Hindus alone. He yelled with gusto that they must feel gravely insulted by the term ‘Hindu/saffron terror.’ And he laid the groundwork for Pragya Thakur’s bid from Bhopal.

If Mayawati can be censured for appealing to Muslim voters, why is Modi not rapped for appealing to Hindu voters? For a whole month, the Election Commission did nothing on complaints about this and other speeches. When it finally, languidly, acted, it was because it was ordered to do so by the Supreme Court. This was unprecedented. And for all that this ‘action’ amounted to (clean chits), the Election Commission may as well have kept silent.

I have memories of elections past. Booth capturing, stuffing of ballot boxes and violence. But I also gratefully remember the ‘feared’ T.N. Seshan, a chief election commissioner (CEC) who stormed out to clean the system. I remember J.M. Lyngdoh who refused to hold elections in Gujarat on the heels of the 2002 pogrom. Now a putrid smell hangs in the air, as we witness the decaying of another of India’s democratic institutions. Just the other day, another former CEC, S.Y. Quraishi wrote:

“The last two months have been a trying time… Ever since I demitted office in 2012, I have been a self-appointed spokesperson for the EC, defending every action of the body that needed to be defended. I must have refused at least a hundred requests by the media to comment on recent happenings. On the few occasions I was drawn into the debate, it was a painful struggle to find suitable words that would not sound like an indictment of the body of which I was proud to be a part.”

Proud no more, sir?

Also read: The Legacy of a Different CEC: When J.M. Lyngdoh Stood up to Modi

Stories of malfunctioning EVMs are coming in every day. Ordinary voting citizens like me have repeatedly asked the EC to count 100% of the VVPAT slips. That is our real paper ballot, and the only way we can be sure – the only way to quell this deep unease rising from all directions.

As I cast my vote this time, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow citizens doing our most basic duty to India, I stared anxiously at that VVPAT screen. I must ensure it records what I click on the EVM – this worry was a new feeling. I have lived proudly in the world’s largest democracy. This time, as a citizen, at that booth, I felt my democracy was unprotected. And my vote was not secure. The Election Commission is silent.

Farah Naqvi is an activist and writer who lives and works in Delhi.