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EC's Submission to SC on Form 17C Shows an Undemocratic Mindset Towards Citizens

The people have every right to know how many votes are polled at each booth and in each constituency. 

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The Election Commission of India’s (EC) submission to the Supreme Court (SC) last week not only smacks of determination to keep election processes opaque, but it also displays a fundamentally undemocratic mindset, which views the people of India as potential miscreants and troublemakers rather than citizens with rights. 

It is the mindset of a feudal sarkar towards its subjects, very far indeed from the desirable relationship of public functionaries to citizens, or of constitutional authorities with a sense of duty towards the tasks they are paid and required to perform in accordance with the Constitution. 

The Supreme Court opted for a "hands-off" approach.

However, the Election Commission should see that its mandate is not from the government of the day, from which it is meant to be autonomous, but from the people of India—who are stated in the very first five words of the Constitution to be the collective owners of the Republic and its institutions.
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The preamble of the Constitution explicitly states that "we, the people of India… adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this constitution." That is a clear assertion that, after independence, the people are the owners of this land and of the institutions through which its bounties, resources, and people are governed.

Elections are not some sort of arbitration between candidates by the Election Commission but polls conducted on behalf of the people of India—so that they may, if they wish, remove from power those who govern them. The people are at the heart of the entire exercise. From start to finish, they have a right to supervise the processes by which elections are conducted, and their representatives chosen. 

For, as Members of Parliament, those representatives have a mandate from their constituents—the people—to decide through a majority vote who will govern, to oversee the functioning of that government over the course of its term, and to check abuse of power. Those representatives do all this on behalf of the people.  

Private or Public? 

Now, let us take a quick look at what the Election Commission told the Chief Justice of India:  

It is submitted that a wholesome disclosure of Form 17C is amenable to mischief and vitiation of the entire electoral space. At the moment, the original Form 17C is only available in the Strong Room and a copy only with the polling agents whose signature it bears. Therefore, there is a one-to-one relationship between each Form 17C and its possessor. It is submitted that indiscriminate disclosure and public posting on the website increases the possibility of the images being morphed, including the counting results which then can create widespread public discomfort and mistrust in the entire electoral process.

By talking of a "one-to-one relationship" between each form and its 'possessor', the Commission suggested exclusive ownership of forms recording how many votes have been polled at each booth.  If the Commission alluded to itself through the word 'possessor', it was basically shutting citizens out of overseeing the exercise being conducted on their behalf.

If it meant possession of the copies by each agent, it should be understood that polling agents are there on behalf of their candidate, who in most cases represents a political party. On the one hand, therefore, an agent is there on behalf of all members and supporters of that party. On the other hand, s/he receives a copy on behalf of the people at large who have voted—not only at that booth but across the country.  

Neither the Commission nor the agents own voting information exclusively. It is the people who are the owners of the electoral exercise, on whose behalf the Commission conducts polls. So, the people have every right to know how many votes are polled at each booth and in each constituency. 

The reason is obvious: the number of votes counted must tally with the number polled. This tallying is especially important when counting takes place several days or weeks after polling.  

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Objectionable Paradigm 

The next point the Election Commission made—that citizens might morph forms—makes no sense. For, since the Commission would retain the original form in a strong room, tampered copies could easily be demonstrated to have been morphed, and legal action initiated against whoever may have tampered. It would not, as the Commission said, vitiate the entire process. 

Indeed, it is the people of India, on behalf of whom the exercise is conducted, who have the right to see that no tampering takes place behind closed doors, especially if some of them suspect the Commission of bias. 

More objectionable is the paradigm in which this argument is set: of an authority which does not trust those over whom it has authority, but rather views them ipso facto as trouble-makers. Not only is this deeply ironic, it is offensive.

The Commission evidently does not see itself as carrying out a sacred duty under the constitution on behalf of the people of India, who have a right not only to elect their representatives but also to oversee the processes by which that is done. Rather, the Commission seems to see itself as some sort of school headmaster in authority over potentially mischievous students, whose mischief it must prevent by curbing access to information.

It seems to operate on the principle that the people by and large are guilty, and must not even be given a chance to prove themselves innocent. This amounts to insulting voters, denying citizens’ rights, and rejecting the spirit of the Constitution.  

(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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