The Election Commission of India (ECI) was boxed in from multiple sides. On one side, it was weighed by the constitutional authority and powers bestowed on it under Articles 324 and 172 (1) of the Indian Constitution. This makes it obligatory for the Commission to hold elections within the tenure of every Vidhan Sabha, which can continue for five years since its constitution, but “no longer.”
While the terms of Assemblies in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur, and Goa end in March, the life of the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha is till May. However, as per past practice, polls in a bunch of states are held simultaneously whenever Vidhan Sabhas complete their terms around the same time.
The Pressures on ECI
Not adhering to convention – like when the ECI in 2017 inexplicably delinked polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh – would have raised a political storm, especially if the polls were pushed back in UP.
The second pressure on the ECI was due to the Allahabad High Court’s strange request, despite the constitutionally laid out procedure, to stop political rallies, and more incredulously, postpone the elections due to the increasing threat of the officially labelled Variant of Concern – Omicron.
The third side from which the ECI was pressured was the public, and self-induced. What steps would it take to avoid the flak heaped on the election body for its inaction during the previous round of Assembly polls, especially in March-April 2021?
At that time, as the second wave of COVID-19 assumed epic dimensions while excessive provocation-laced electioneering in West Bengal continued, the ECI remained a mute bystander till the fag end, adding to the litany of its (in)actions which compromised the institution’s constitutionally ordained impartiality.
In these testing times, the ECI has eventually weathered these multiple pressures, sticking to its constitutional brief, and made a beginning in making the poll process relatively safer, although the fairness of guidelines issued is debatable. The challenge of ensuring the democratic process continues unimpeded was enormous and some decisions will invariably leave parties at a slight disadvantage, some more than others.
Pros & Cons of Digital Campaigning
For instance, if Akhilesh Yadav feels that digital campaigning hands the BJP an advantage, the latter too loses out because its leaders will not get the opportunity to blow the dog whistle, traditionally integral to the party whipping up passions in its favour.
This makes the media’s role vital. But with its ‘management’ being the BJP’s forte, news organisations and its personnel too must remain balanced. Instructions on pre-certification of political advertisements are laudable but the ECI’s stance on instances when biased reportage or opinions are passed off as regular programming will be keenly scrutinised. As it is, the Commission has been unable to prevent ‘paid news’ completely.
No party can deny that the possibility of using digital processes in polls loomed on the horizon for months, especially after Sushil Modi, then deputy chief minister of Bihar, made a pitch in May 2020 for online voting. Consequently, no party can complain of being caught unawares.
The BJP has obvious unfair advantages, from being an early starter to the availability of limitless resources, a massive network of mobile handsets, and untrammeled use of fake and hate factories. The challenge for the Opposition is to negate advantages by not being trite while taking to innovation, certainly not the exclusive holding of the BJP.
For the ECI, the challenge is to monitor social media broadcasts by parties and members of their ecosystem. In the event of provocations and violation of the Model Code of Conduct, especially those related to hate speeches, the poll body must act without delay.
ECI Risks Losing its Partially Restored Trust by Allowing Rallies Just After a Week's Hiatus
Tranquilised campaigning, which we shall witness at least till January 15, opens up the probability of voters arriving at their electoral decision by a rational process based on livelihood and security issues. The ECI risks losing its partially restored credibility by allowing rallies, roadshows etc., after just a week’s hiatus.
As it is, the poll panel remains open to accusations of delaying announcing the schedule and enabling Prime Minister Narendra Modi to complete his marathon of inaugurations and shilanyases, besides enabling other parties to join the party and organise similar congregations of the unmasked people.
The Commission could not have been but aware that the basis of an evaluation of its measures for conducting these polls would be three-pronged in the least.
One, what steps were announced to meet the COVID-19 challenge more effectively than during the previous two rounds of Assembly elections in the post-pandemic era?
Two, whether or not the ECI announced measures to address old anomalies and deficiencies in the electoral system, especially pertaining to criminality and continued inaction in the event of a violation of poll guidelines by parties and candidates.
Three, steps initiated to restore the Commission’s impartial public image and autonomy. This assumed importance in the wake of reports in sections of the media that the BJP lobbied for polling in UP to start from the eastern region of the state and not western UP as has been the norm in recent polls.
Will BJP Succeed in the Polls Amid a Change in Political Topography in UP?
Much of BJP’s political dominance in recent years was triggered by its spectacular successes in UP in elections in 2014, 2017, and 2019 when the phased-wise polls started from then communally polarised western UP. In the course of a conversation with this writer at a non-political event after 2014, union minister and litigious leader from western UP, Sanjeev Balyan, meaningfully bragged “hawa paschim is chalti hai.” (the wind blows from the west).
In the wake of the farmers’ stir, the political topography of this region has perceptibly altered and if the current sentiment prevails, the same wind may blow detrimentally for the BJP. Steps the party takes to recover poll position in western UP will be keenly tracked. Will chief minister Yogi Adityanath throw his hat in the ring from Mathura, as is being speculated? Does the Samajwadi Party have a response to this possible move?
Significantly, new guidelines to prevent the unbridled spread of the pestilence stand to benefit the BJP due to its emphasis in recent years on raising an army of booth-level workers. The ECI’s decision to further reduce the number of voters in every booth from a maximum of 1,000 is likely to play out to the BJP’s advantage because of its network of panna-pramukhs.
The ECI modified preceding COVID-19 guidelines but remains short on tightening measures in the wake of violations of the poll norms by parties and candidates.
ECI Should Take Action If Anyone Violates COVID Guidelines
Much has been made out of the stipulation that candidates must widely publicise their criminal background and parties provide reasons behind their selection and “why other individuals without criminal antecedents could not be selected as candidates.”
But this has not just come after a prod from the Supreme Court in August 2021, but the ECI remained conspicuous by its silence on steps planned in the event of non-compliance save stating that it would bring this non-fulfillment “to the notice of the Supreme Court as being in contempt,” a lengthy process that enables the ‘guilty’ to get away.
Of course, at the apex court’s direction, a mobile App, ‘Know Your Candidate’ is to be created, but eventually, voters will have to decide who they wish to elect, a criminally tarnished nominee or another.
The poll body correctly stated that anybody violating COVID-19 guidelines shall face proceedings, but this power, in the event of an occurrence, has to be utilised and not remain mute like in several instances in the recent past.
The ECI has an opportunity to restore trustworthiness of the institution that has eroded in the past few years. The first test will be its stance on physical campaigning after January 15 and action it initiates in the event of violations.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)