Bihar Polls: Why Did ECI Not Stop BJP’s Vaccine Politicisation?

Usually, it is the opposition parties who face the ire of the ECI instead of those in power at the centre.

4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

The BJP’s poll promise of offering free COVID 19 vaccine to voters in Bihar is problematic and makes a mockery of the election commission’s model code and conduct. It also subverts Supreme Court’s guidelines where the apex court had said political parties should explain the budgetary provision required to fulfil poll promises.

Prima facie, much of the problems arising from such unrealistic and populist poll sop stems from absence of ethics or ethical foundation in Indian political system. Unlike the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy practiced in Britain, in the Indian version, propriety has seldom been on a premium.

The Model Code of Conduct, or the MCC, is based on the assumption that political parties and candidates would accord importance to issues of propriety, ethics and morality. In the absence of these lofty principles, the Westminster model is reduced to ashes.

Be it political defections, mixing of religion, sect, caste, or worldly allurements such as free distribution of booze and money on the eve of polling, all major political parties and their candidates are guilty of corrupt practices.

Activities such as:

  • using caste and communal feelings to secure votes,
  • criticising candidates on the basis of unverified reports,
  • bribing or intimidation of voters, and
  • organising demonstrations or picketing outside houses of persons to protest against their opinions, are prohibited.

Election Commission of India Has Not Always Been Toothless

Even a cursory look at three phase Bihar assembly elections would show that most of these provisions are not being followed.

The BJP’s move to use the pandemic for political gains should have been called out as a ‘wide ball.’ Instead, the Election Commission of India left the judgment to the sagacity of Bihari voters. From the initial response, it appears that union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s sop has failed to make a requisite impact.

But the issue has not been the efficacy of the plank but the ECI’s inability to act decisively.

Many may not recollect now that present day ECI’s inaction is in sharp contrast to its assertiveness in 2014 when it had forced Dr Manmohan Singh government to postpone certain policy decisions by the government related to natural gas pricing and notifying ecologically sensitive areas in the Western Ghats.

In the constitutional scheme of things, the Election Commission of India has a statutory duty to act as a referee and vested with various powers to discipline erring parties and individuals. However, in practice, the three-member commission appears listless, careless, an off-the-field third empire who occasionally wakes up from deep slumber, just to administer some harmless nudge.

Does the ECI Act Only When the Opposition Parties Flout Codes?

More often than not, it is the opposition parties who face the ire of the ECI instead of those in power at the centre. Since 2014, the country has witnessed another feature linked to the timing of polls.  Central government agencies such as the enforcement directorate, income tax, central bureau of investigation etc go about conducting raids on many opposition leaders and individuals considered sympathetic to them. The ECI remains a mute spectator.

Several former election commissioners insist that Article 324 of the Constitution empowers the ECI to regulate political parties and candidates in order to ensure a free and fair election.

Privately, they pass the buck to the political parties pointing that there is no political will to cleanse the system.


Can Bihar Voters ‘Teach’ Propriety to Political Parties?

The ECI has been lacklustre since 2014. Each time a complaint was lodged against the Prime Minister, the ECI tried to look the other way.
When Yogi Adityanath was benched during 2019 Lok Sabha (not to campaign), the ECI did not issue any advisory to media for not covering his activities. Yogi observed silence and went on temple hopping, with huge media, mostly television journalists, in tow.
A minister in Madhya Pradesh was convicted for paid news and debarred from contesting,  but the ECI did not follow the case in the high court. The erring minister is back in business without a hurdle.

However, even the pre-Modi era record the ECI is not spectacular either.

When Sanjay Gandhi died in june 1980, the election commission failed to hold bypolls within six months. By the time Rajiv Gandhi took oath as Amethi’s MP, the calendar read 17 August, 1981.

The quest for political gains at the cost of everything is posing a major threat to an otherwise robust, vibrant, and participatory democracy. Bihar verdict on 10 November, therefore, may have a powerful message considering that politics of Bihar has a history of ushering in monumental changes.

Or, the author is simply being wishful.

(Rasheed Kidwai is the author of ‘24, Akbar Road, Ballot’ and ‘Sonia: a Biography’. He is a Visiting Fellow at the ORF. He tweets at @rasheedkidwai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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