Only a few days are left for India’s 17th Lok Sabha elections. This year the elections are being held in 543 constituencies in seven phases, between 11 April and 19 May. The final results are scheduled to be announced on 23 May.
Voter Verified Paper Trail along with all Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) are going to be used for the first time. The Indian election commission is prepared for 900 million voters to cast their votes. Some 10 million officials and employees will be engaged in voting duties. Around 1.7 million EVMs will be required. A three-member commission arranges elections for the largest democracy. The commission is going to organise the biggest election so far.
The Indian election commission was a one-member one till 1989 and the member was the chief election commissioner. In case of necessity, two more members were hired temporarily. After an amendment in 1989, a three-member commission was constituted. The current chief election commissioner is former secretary Sunil Arora. One of two other commissioners is the administration’s former secretary Ashoke Lavasa and another is the former chairman of the Central Board of Directorate Taxes of Revenue, Sunil Chandra. The election commission appoints 36 chief election officers at a state level and union territories for election management. Almost all of them are senior members of the Indian administration. The elections of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha are held under the management of respective Rajya CEO. CEO is only accountable to the election commission.
Indian political analysts believe the Lok Sabha election is very important this year because Narendra Modi could not fulfill the pledges he made before the last election. The economy has not progressed but corruption and unemployment have increased. Democratic institutions are being weakened. Hardline hindutva is being used to render India a Hindu state by changing its secular image.
In 2014, Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi bagged a historic victory by defeating Congress in the Hindi speaking regions. Congress is getting huge support again due to misrule and the Hindutva ideology of BJP led by Modi.
BJP is afraid as the popularity of Modi decreases. Modi has hardly been successful in wooing voters by using the nationalism mantra following the battle with Pakistan. Rather, BJP has been charged with reportedly violating electoral code of conduct in doing so. The election commission has to tackle that.
No questions have been raised over the Indian election system and results. Afro-Asian democratic countries consider the Indian election commission and its system to be a model. The Indian election commission has never faced any question regarding partiality and enforcing law.
However, some questions have come to fore over some activities of the election commission this year. Some of the experts raised questions over holding election in seven phases (the election was held in five phases in 2014). These questions have been raised in the states where the BJP is less dominant. For example, voting will be held in two constituencies (Cooch Bihar and Alipurduar) of 42 constituencies in West Bengal in the first phase of election on 11 April. In these two constituencies of North Bengal, members of parliament are from the Trinamool Congress. BJP, however, created a base in these two regions in the last couple of years. The opposition parties alleged that the election commission delayed in announcing the election schedule. The parties pointed out the commission announced the election schedule on 10 March to facilitate the prime minister to go on an electioneering tour in government expenses and get media coverage. The election commission, however, did not make any comment in this regard. Such questions were also raised earlier. But the election management and neutrality of the commission are not tainted.
Each district magistrate (DM) discharges duties of a district election officer in the Indian election system. A returning officer is appointed for each constituency. They are mainly from administrative service. CEOs supervise them. The election commission has no scope to show partiality in such big election management, said a former central secretary, a CEO and a chief researcher of an election affairs organisation.
Partiality is not possible due to the legacy of Indian institutions. The institutions work independently. It is proved that the election commission is the lone controller during the election. An allegation of violating the electoral code of conduct was raised against Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh seeking votes in favour of the prime minister. As the allegation was proved, the election commission requested president Ramnath Covinth to take action. The president sent a letter to the government to take action against the governor. This is an example. Such an allegation by the election commission against a governor is unprecedented in Indian election history. The election commission has carried out its duties strongly. Now the government has to take action. The analysts believe that it is a tough test for the government led by Modi. The matter will go to the court if the governor does not resign or the government does not take action.
Indian election commission sought explanation sending a show cause notice to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath for violating the electoral code of conduct. He was accused of terming the Indian army as the ‘Modiji army’ during an election campaign. The Indian army also sent a protest letter to the defence ministry. The election commission is examining whether the prime minister in an address to the nation has violated the code of conduct after a successful test of missiles during the election period. India’s model code of conduct is not a law or rule. Still, the violation of it is a criminal offence.
Not only the election commission but also the Supreme Court also helps to make the election transparent. The Indian Supreme Court accepted the appeal of the Congress so that the biopic on Modi was not screened. The film was not screened. Earlier, Mumbai High Court accepted the case. The election commission also summoned the film producer on charges of violating election code of conduct.
The Lok Sabha election has brought many challenges in front of the election commission. The commission is staunchly facing these challenges. Although the Indian election commission does not have strong laws to take steps as our election commission has, it still is a model for other countries. If an independent election commission in a democratic country applies its power, the election management must reach a height. And the Indian election commission is an instance. Whatever the outcome of the election, Indians will have no mistrust in their election commission.
India’s election management, enforcement of law and strong steps have been a model for the developing and democratic countries in this subcontinent. The election commission has to earn the trust of people by applying its power and acting independently.
* M Sakhawat Hossain is a former election commissioner, former military officer and presently an honorary fellow at NSU. He can be contacted at email@example.com. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here by Rabiul Islam