The latest is the BJP’s IT cell chief Amit Malviya tweeting the election date of Karnataka-May 12-well before the formal announcement by the ECI. Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) OP Rawat has termed it a very serious issue and has promised full inquiry and stringent action.
Just the other day, the Delhi High Court gave a scathing indictment of ECI’s functioning when it quashed the Presidential order disqualifying 20 AAP MLAs in Delhi. For a constitutional body vested with the crucial power to determine whether lawmakers have incurred disqualification in certain circumstances and advise the President or the Governor suitably, this was not only embarrassing but mortifying. Though the court has not reviewed its decision on merits, it has ruled that the EC violated the principles of natural justice while adjudicating a lawyer’s complaint against the legislators. It is openly said that in this ‘disqualification’ fiasco BJP fired from the shoulders of the ECI.
Some months ago, there was a raging controversy when ECI delayed the announcement of dates for the Gujarat elections-close to two weeks after the Election Commission declared dates for elections in Himachal Pradesh. Traditionally, dates for both states are announced concurrently. The then CEC AK Joti had defended the delay, claiming that elections will divert government workers from pending relief work in seven districts of Gujarat impacted by floods.
Responding to this former CEC, TS Krishnamurthy had this to say: “If Emergency flood-relief is the only factor for delinking the elections as per newspaper reports, I feel the problems could have been overcome administratively. There are clear instructions that all ongoing developmental works on the date of announcement of elections can continue without any problem. Similarly, all emergency relief work such as floods/natural disasters can be carried out by officers without any politicians taking part in it.”
According to another CEC SY Quraishi, this act of the ECI had created a “ground of suspicion” since it was related to the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Gujarat on a certain date to address rallies and shower ‘goodies’ on the state’s voters. He went further to say that this episode has cast shadows on the very credibility of ECI.
The Constitution of India mandates the ECI with the superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to Parliament, State Legislatures as well as President and Vice President. In Mohinder Singh Gill vs. Chief Election Commissioner (1978. 2 SCR-272) case, the Supreme Court ruled that Article 324 is a reservoir of power to act for the avowed purpose of pushing forward a free and fair election with expedition: “The Commission shall be responsible for the rule of law, act bona fide and be amenable to the norms of natural justice in so for as conformance to such canons can reasonably and realistically be required of it as fair play-in-action in a most important area of constitutional order, viz, elections.” In a catena of cases the Apex Court has observed that fair and free elections is a basic feature of the Constitution.
In order to perform such an exalted role, the ECI has been given the same status as that of the Supreme Court and the Election Commissioners are on a par with the Apex Court judges and CEC enjoys the same constitutional protection. It is therefore imperative on the part of ECI to ensure electoral integrity by all means and not remain tied to the apron-strings of the government or succumb to the ruling party wielding the baton. But unfortunately, ECI has not covered itself with glory on this front and in the conduct of elections it does not consult the people, the real stakeholders and do not implement Article 324 in letter and spirit. Instead they pander to the political parties, who are only interested in grabbing power by fair or foul means. Elections have become a mere tool to facilitate this.
This is evident from ECI’s casual way of conduct of elections by not taking serious note of the flaws in the system of using electronic voting machines (EVMs) that have been repeatedly shown to be riddled with glitches, and not initiating genuine action to allay these concerns. No doubt, pursuant to the order of the Supreme Court, passed on 8.10.2013, in Civil Appeal No. 9093 of 2013 and WP (C) No. 406 of 2012, ECI has confirmed that all EVMs will be accompanied with VVPAT (Voter Verified Paper Audited Trail) for the upcoming 2019 general elections.
But as per letter dated 13-2-2018 the chief electoral officers in all States and Union Territories have been directed to mandatorily verify VVPAT paper slips in only one randomly selected polling station in each assembly constituency. This has been practiced in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Northeastern states and is now being ordered for Karnataka also. This works out to 0.4 to 0.5 percent which is abysmally low for any verification to be realistic. In the event the very object of implementing VVPATs in all EVMs would be rendered nugatory.
The main purpose behind the introduction of VVPATs is to bring in accuracy, verifiability and transparency in the casting and counting of votes. With the presence of VVPATs, voters can verify if their vote has been cast to the right candidate. Needless to say, it is only when the paper slips as verified by the voters are counted that the true purpose behind introduction of VVPATs is served. Without counting of VVPAT paper slips in a significant percentage of polling stations in each assembly constituency, the objectives of verifiability and transparency in the democratic process would remain unrealized. It would be prudent to adopt a sample size of 10% of the polling stations in an Assembly Constituency with the samples drawn randomly from the different strata. This practice, capable of bringing some semblance of ‘democracy principles’ into elections which EVMs lack, can commence with Karnataka.
ECI is not a subordinate entity of the government. They represent “We, the people” and are not placed there to bring political parties to power and allow them to do whatever they want.
ECI is there on behalf of the people to sustain democracy and make it vibrant. With this in mind ECI must initiate a country-wide discourse wherein all segments of people should be involved. It is imperative for the ECI to function as a catalyst to rally the forces and ensure electoral integrity by all means instead of allowing things to drift and decay. Sooner this is done the better for India’s democracy!
- The writer, formerly of the IAS is Convener, Forum for Electoral Integrity