EC must stop acting in a partisan way, else its credibility will erode

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

The opinion of the Election Commission of India that Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not violate the Model Code of Conduct while delivering election speeches on April 1 at Wardha, Maharashtra, and on April 9 at Latur, also in Maharashtra, demonstrates that the commission is guilty of violating the code it is meant to adhere to as a non-partisan institution whose integrity should never be doubted by the people of India. If the commission follows the same template, when it comes to judging the most powerful man in Indian politics, for the remaining 40-odd complaints still pending against him, the three commissioners would have presided over eroding the faith that the people have gradually developed in key institutions over the past three decades.
People began considering the EC as impartial only from the 1990s due to the fulminations of a not-so-genial gentleman named T.N. Seshan, who ensured that the institution stopped being an appendage of the executive and the ruling party. He outrageously declared that he “ate politicians for breakfast”, and ensured it became a level playing field once the poll process was underway. Mr Seshan took care to ensure that the incumbent did not misuse power and bend rules by alternately offering the carrot and the stick.
It was during the former’s tenure that BJP leader and Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi had remarked that the EC had begun functioning like Ceasar’s wife — above suspicion. In contrast, this institution is now acting as a highly partisan body censuring only Opposition leaders or those from the ruling party who are not exactly setting the electoral trail ablaze with their speeches. True, even Yogi Adityanath, Maneka Gandhi and Pragya Singh Thakur have been penalised for offensive speeches. But by being a silent spectator to repeated violations of the Model Code of Conduct by the party’s power duo — Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah — the EC has failed the people.
Let us scrutinise what exactly Mr Modi had said in Wardha and Latur and juxtapose his assertions with those of leaders — from the ruling party and the Opposition alike — against whom the commission has taken action so far. In the speech delivered after Congress president Rahul Gandhi decided to contest from Wayanad, Kerala, in addition to Amethi, UP, Mr Modi said that the Congress dubbed the “peaceful Hindu society, those who consider the entire world as their family, as terrorists… And this was the reason why he (Gandhi) had to run away from a majority seat to a minority seat. The Congress has committed the sin of defaming our 5,000-year-old Hindu culture… In thousands of years of history, has there been any Hindu terrorist?” He repeated this assertion at Nanded on April 6 but within days, on April 9 at Latur, Mr Modi went a step further.
This time, his message was to first-time voters. He asked whether their first vote should not be dedicated to the “veer jawaanon” (brave soldiers) — incidentally, no Indian Air Force personnel died in the airstrike and subsequent dogfight on February 27, unless one is willing to include the six IAF men who perished in the Mi17-V5 helicopter crash? Mr Modi subsequently asked if first-time voters could not dedicate their votes to the memory of “veer shaheedon” (brave martyrs) of Pulwama. This speech was delivered precisely a month after the EC’s “advisory to political parties”, in which it drew the attention of political parties to the use of photographs of defence personnel in their campaign.
The EC recalled the body’s previous note to political parties dated December 4, 2013 wherein it stated that the “armed forces of a nation are the guardian of its frontiers, security and political system… They are apolitical and neutral stakeholders in a modern democracy. It is therefore extremely necessary that political parties and leaders exercise great caution while making any reference to the armed forces in their political campaign”. As his speech at Latur showed, Mr Modi had certainly not been cautious while referring to the Pulwama tragedy and the Balakot airstrike.
In contrast to the relaxed appraisal of the Prime Minister, the EC scrutinised the speeches of Opposition leaders promptly and in far greater detail. The notice served to Congress president Rahul Gandhi on May 1, for instance. The complaint was filed on April 27 and taken up within days. In contrast, the commission summoned its full meeting to examine complaints against the Prime Minister only after Congress Mahila Morcha president Sushmita Dev filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking a directive to the EC to hear her party’s petitions against Mr Modi.
In this speech on April 23 at Shadol, Madhya Pradesh, Mr Gandhi had claimed that the Modi government had passed a law legitimising the shooting of tribals. The truth was, however, different. First, this legislation — amendments to the Indian Forest Act 1927 — is still a proposal. Second, although it converts certain offences as non-bailable from being bailable currently and inserts a new clause which grants power to forest officers to use firearms, it is not so simple as what Mr Gandhi claims.
Instead, the clause specifies that forest officials may be allowed to use firearms to apprehend people violating the law, but they must “use as little force, including firearms, and do as little injury to persons” as possible. Arming forest officials with such powers raises questions, but Mr Gandhi misled people by claiming it was already a law passed under this government.
The alacrity with which the notice was served showed the EC’s partisanship. In contrast to Mr Modi, Mr Gandhi was not fanning prejudice between religious communities as the Prime Minister did with his “minority constituency” accusation. By seeing Mr Modi’s speeches as only an attack on his rivals and Mr Gandhi’s statements as a violation of the Model Code of Conduct, the EC is risking an erosion in the institution’s credibility with the public at large. Unless urgent steps are taken to rectify this, the present troika of commissioners will have greatly damaged this august body.