New Delhi, India – In 2011, Hillary Clinton, a former US secretary of state and presidential candidate, during her visit to India, referred to India’s electoral commission as a “global gold standard” in election management.
The Election Commission of India (ECI) – a constitutional authority – has successfully conducted 16 general elections since the country’s independence from British rule in 1947.
Voting for India’s multi-phase general elections kicked off last week with 900 million people eligible to vote in the biggest democratic exercise in the world.
And more than 11 million election officials deployed to over one million polling stations located in every nook and cranny of the country will ensure that the process goes smoothly.
To administer free and fair elections, the ECI framed a Model Code of Conduct (MCC), a set of guidelines for candidates and political parties, that came into effect as soon as the election dates were announced and will stay in force until the results are declared.
As per MCC guidelines, candidates and political parties are banned from invoking religion and caste in campaigning while a limit has been placed on expenditures by candidates and parties.
Incumbent governments are also barred from announcing new schemes and programmes after the MCC comes into force.
But it seems the ECI, touted as the most powerful electoral body in the world, has struggled to act against violators.
In the past few weeks alone, the ECI has received hundreds of thousands of complaints alleging violations of the MCC.
On April 1, while addressing a rally in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attacked opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest the election from Kerala’s Wayanad seat – which has a significant Muslim presence – saying the Congress was “afraid” of fielding candidates from constituencies dominated by Hindus.
The ECI did not act, despite the MCC ban on such statements, while at the same time it served notice to Mayawati, a prominent Dalit leader, for seeking Muslim votes in an election speech.
India’s far-right politicians are infamous for hate speech against minority groups such as Muslims and Dalits but most of them get away with it.
According to the latest count, 70 members of parliament and state legislatures have hate-speech cases pending against them.
Candidates accused of using hate speech against minorities are three times more successful in elections, according to ECI data.
Recently, Maneka Gandhi, a federal minister from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in her speech warned Muslims not to vote against her.
The electoral body also issued orders that the armed forces should not be used to promote political parties. This followed an outcry over the BJP campaign’s use of a photograph of a fighter pilot who was captured and later released by Pakistan during a recent military standoff.
However, the pilot’s photographs have continued to feature prominently on the ruling party’s campaign material.
In violation of the ECI orders, on March 27, Modi used the pilot’s name in an interview with Republic TV without censure from the election monitor. When a complaint was filed against Modi, election officials said they had received a complaint but no action had been taken so far..
In the past two years, the ECI has also been accused of delaying election dates to benefit the BJP. In October 2017, the polling dates for Gujarat were delayed by 12 days. The BJP-led state and central governments used the delay to announce a slew of schemes and development projects that were inaugurated by Modi in a whirlwind tour.
The delay led opposition parties and civil society groups to allege that the ECI was pressured by the ruling party to grant it extra time to announce schemes tailored for the election.
On Monday, a group of prominent retired bureaucrats wrote to President Ramnath Kovind saying the ECI was suffering from a “crisis in credibility”.
The signatories included former National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon and the former Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung.
They said they were distressed by the “misuse, abuse and blatant disregard” of the MCC by Prime Minister Modi’s BJP and the ECI’s “pusillanimity” in dealing with these violations.
On Friday, it was the BJP’s turn to register its complaint. The ruling party said it was “let down” by the ECI for not acting against Rahul Gandhi for calling the prime minister “a thief” last September. It also filed a complaint against vote-rigging in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh states where elections were held on April 11.
PDT Achary, former Secretary General of Lok Sabha and a constitutional expert, said, “The ECI does not take complaints to their logical conclusion. Once the response to the ECI notice comes in, ECI does not go any further, as if the response is always satisfactory.”
This was apparent in a recent case when the ECI issued a notice to Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh known for his anti-Muslim statements. On April 1, he gave a speech in which he referred to the Indian army as “Modi ki Sena” (Modi’s army).
The ECI finally acted against Yogi and Mayawati on Sunday when it imposed a temporary ban on them election campaigning.
Sheyphali Sharan, the official spokesperson of the ECI, told Al Jazeera, “EC is working to the best of its ability. We will not ignore any complaints. We are committed to making sure that the elections are conducted in a free, impartial manner.”
Last week, the ECI banned the release of a Bollywood biopic on Modi and ordered the BJP to stop the airing of a channel called NaMo TV, saying it would “disturb [a] level playing field”.
Although the MCC sets a limit for how much a candidate can spend on campaigning, it has hardly been enforced, says Major General Anil Verma, coordinator of the NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
“Black money and cash are an open secret in Indian election campaigns. Even when the election expenditure cap per candidate is $100,000 (Rs 7 million) this year, the actual expenditure often goes up to $800,000 (Rs 55 million). The ECI can’t take action because it does not have an investigating unit to prove it,” he said.
Organisations such as ADR have been calling for reforms to strengthen the ECI but successive governments have dragged their feet.
But N Gopalaswami, former Chief Election Commissioner says it is wrong to question the intention of the ECI. He says, “No election commission is completely partisan. There may be some individuals but not the entire commission.”
“The problem is that ECI does not have a statutory backing to go beyond the notices. It does not have the power to file cases once the elections are over. It has to go to the Supreme Court to do so,” he told Al Jazeera.
Achary, the constitutional expert, said the MCC is a product of consensus, it is a set of guidelines with no legal binding – but there was still a way to deal with complaints.
“There is a provision for the EC that if any party violates MCC, they can withdraw the election symbol of a party. The point is will the EC derecognise the symbol of the ruling party when a prime minister violates MCC?” Achary asked.
The Indira Gandhi years
Political observers have drawn parallels between Modi and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – who briefly imposed a state of emergency and disrupted India’s only democratic process in the late 1970s.
She was accused of electoral malpractice in the 1971 elections but the ECI failed to act against her. She was later disqualified as a Member of Parliament after her opponent went to court.
In 1989, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) RVS Peri Sastri introduced wide-ranging electoral reforms, including reducing the voting age to 18 from 21. He also stood his ground when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi – Indira Gandhi’s son – tried to manipulate election dates to his advantage.
The show of power by Sastri prompted the government to make a multi-member panel to head the ECI – a move widely seen as the first attempt to dilute the power of the ECI and its chief.
TN Seshan, an Indian Administrative Services officer, who stepped in as the tenth Chief Election Commissioner in 1990, is also credited with a range of reforms to conduct free and fair elections.
He introduced the concept of voter photo ID and enlisted security forces to check booth capturing and voter intimidation, to much acclaim.
“In the 90s, TN Seshan was one Election Commissioner who showed how powerful the ECI is. In his time, political parties were afraid of the ECI, especially those parties that were known for booth capturing. It became impossible for them to continue as before,” Achary said.