By Prakash Karat
Some of the recent positions and steps taken by the Election Commission (EC) of India do no credit to its well-earned reputation of being an impartial arbiter and supervisor of free and fair elections, a role vested in it by the Indian Constitution.
In the last few years, particularly after the Modi government came back to power for a second term, the EC is seen increasingly to acquiesce to the wishes of the government and has even resiled from some of the independent positions it had earlier adopted.
Some recent instances highlight this unfortunate trend. The EC had taken a position before the Supreme Court on the issue of poll promises and whether freebies can be promised at the time of election, that it does not fall under its purview. It had stated that any attempt to intervene in this matter which concerns political parties and voters would be an “overreach of powers”.
Having taken this unexceptionable position in April this year, the EC changed its stance subsequently after Prime Minister Modi railed against ‘revdi’ culture in July and blamed the opposition for offering freebies to the people. In October, the EC informed political parties that it is planning to amend the model code of conduct and introduce a proforma for disclosure of the details of poll promises and their financial implications.
Moreover, the parties would have to show how they were going to raise additional resources for fulfilling the promises in the context of the budgetary and fiscal situation of the government. Such an interference in political parties’ commitments to the people is an effort to circumscribe the policy of a political party within the prevailing wisdom of fiscal rectitude and the EC has no business in evaluating such poll promises. By taking this step, contrary to its own position in the Supreme Court a few months ago, the EC has opened itself to the charge of fulfilling the prime minister’s diktat.
The EC had categorically come out against the scheme of electoral bonds when it was first mooted by the government. It expressed serious reservations about the opaque system and how such anonymous funding would affect the conduct of free and fair polls. This was stated in 2018. Since then, the EC has not pursued the matter vigorously whenever the matter has come up in the Supreme Court which is hearing petitions against electoral bonds.
Instead of being seriously engaged in figuring out how to stop the flow of anonymous funds into elections, the EC is more concerned about how to track the small donations which are received by political parties. At present, the law provides for parties to declare the source of donation for amounts above Rs 20,000. The EC has written to the law minister in September to amend the law, so that donations of above Rs 2,000 are declared. The EC wants to clampdown on anonymous donations below Rs 2,000, but it is ironical that the Commission does not seem overly concerned about the crores of rupees that are being donated anonymously through the electoral bonds. After the 22nd tranche of electoral bonds, which was issued in October this year, a total of Rs 10,791 crores has come through this anonymous route, the bulk of it to the ruling party.
The electoral bonds are issued four times a year – in January, April, July and October – from the 1st to the 10th of the month. But, after the last tranche in October this year, the Modi government has amended the rules to have another extra issue on November 8 for a period of fifteen days. This amendment to the rules is clearly meant for the Gujarat elections which are to be held in the first week of December. The BJP, obviously, hopes to mop up a huge amount of funds from the corporates and shady businessmen who are ever ready to oblige the ruling party.
Without scrapping the electoral bond scheme, there can be no level playing field for elections and no check on the use of unaccounted money for election purposes. However, the EC is content in making small donations of Rs 2,000 and above accountable.
The EC is also setting new standards in the conduct of the Gujarat assembly elections. First of all, the announcement of the Gujarat elections was delayed much after the announcement of the Himachal Pradesh assembly polls. Everybody has seen how these extra days were utilised by the prime minister to inaugurate or open a series of projects and schemes in Gujarat.
The other unusual step taken is the EC signing MoUs with over a thousand corporate houses in Gujarat to monitor “electoral participation of their workforce” and publish the names of those who do not vote on their websites or notice boards. This comes dangerously close to voting by coercion. The managements of companies are now being entrusted with the responsibility to ensure that their workers cast their votes. The next step would be to advise workers how to vote.
The Election Commission is too precious and vital a body for our democracy. Its independence and integrity cannot be allowed to be eroded by an authoritarian government. It is time for reforms in the Election Commission. To begin with, the selection of Election Commissioners must be done by a committee, which includes the Chief Justice of India and the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha. Right now it is solely in the hands of the executive. Secondly, after retirement, a commissioner should be barred from taking up any official position or nomination by a political party to become a member of parliament or legislature. (IPA Service)