In Indian elections now, it is the Election Commission that is the most prominent player. Instead of the traditional behind-the-curtain role it used to play, the EC is increasingly coming to dominate the scene wielding a stick to rap the knuckles of political parties. EC tries to micro-manage even ideological debates.
The EC has taken the task of disciplining the democratic political process to absurd levels. The voting is spread over an inexplicably long period. Uttar Pradesh elections to 403 assembly seats is taking place in seven phases in a month, less than 60 seats at a time. By that logic the general elections would take over a year?
The EC also fixes up poll dates rather arbitrarily. Polling is being held the earliest in Uttarakhand, now under a grip of severe cold wave, with half the state under snow, making campaigning unthinkable in these parts. (See report on page 2). Goa goes to polls the last, in early March, though it would be more suitable and more rewarding in voting percentage to have Uttarakhand elections in early March. The Uttarakhand Chief Minister BC Khanduri wrote to the Chief Election Commissioner pointing out the difficulties, to no avail. The CBSE exams are always held in March every year. By holding elections in February-March, a large number of teachers are being diverted for poll duty at a crucial time for students. In fact, the CBSE had to reschedule one paper because of the Election Commission.
Manipur which has the first polling date on 28 January would wait nearly forty days for the result. This involves safe-keeping the voting machines for this long. The same goes for the early phases of polling in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand. In an age when information passes around in a matter of seconds and technology aids such speed, the Commission, using high-tech gadgets is taking longer to hold elections than the manual process.
The Chief Election Commissioner today enters into open spat with elected leaders. CEC S Y Quraishi went to the extent of asking the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh to think before she talked. The EC decision to cover the statues of elephants at a considerable cost is questionable. As aptly pointed out by Mayawati, cycle is the poll symbol of the Samajwadi Party and hand is the symbol of the Congress. Are these being covered, she asked. By EC’s logic people should not be allowed to ride cycles or wave hands!
The Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid announced reservation for minorities at the campaign meeting of his wife and Congress candidate Luise Fernandes. This was followed by a friendly combat between the CEC and the minister. The matter is now closed for all practical purposes.
The electronic voting machine has been under fire from several quarters. Scientists and psephologists have warned that the machines, made abroad, can easily be tampered. Instead of paying heed, the EC has pushed ahead with them, unwilling to even consider the matter seriously. Pre-poll opinion polls have been banned, without broad-based and informed debate on the issue with the political parties and the media. It has become the arbitrator to decide what is secular and what is communal, what is right and wrong. It has drawn the political line beyond which the parties cannot cross.
Electoral reforms is a serious issue. These are not something that the Commission can order and achieve. It should involve the political parties and the citizens. One of the first requirements of this is to increase the voting percentage and participation. In most seats today the winner gets less than fifty per cent votes, sometimes as low as twenty per cent, meaning his or her victory is not the decision of the majority of the voters, but he or she was only first past the post. This system needs to be rectified.
Over the past two decades, the Election Commission has become the choreographer of elections, instead of being the facilitator. Polls, the celebration of democracy has become a stiff bureaucratic ‘exercise.’ It is unfortunate that the political parties today are suffering this metamorphosis in silence without attempting to stem the drift.