Here’s Why EC’s Fairness Under Modi Rule Needs to be Questioned
The elections for the 17th Lok Sabha are the most significant parliamentary polls since the one held in 1977 after the dark 21 months of Emergency. Back then, the exercise was a virtual referendum on the basic democratic tenets of the nation and on the question of safeguarding constitutional institutions from a single extra-constitutional authority and her coterie.
The challenge before the electorate today is similar — they have to choose between following the path selected by our Constitutional makers or deviating to a new path.
In 1977, they gave a huge thumbs-down to Indira Gandhi's effort to undermine Parliament and the Constitution. It remains to be seen if the voters this time are going to endorse the vision of a new Republic, the trailer of which has been screened endlessly since May 2014.
What Happens When Emergency and Fundamental Rights Are Violated?
As India prepares for the vote, it is prudent to recollect what LK Advani said in 2015 when asked if Emergency could ever be re-imposed. He prevaricated on the question if such a reign could be formally imposed but added:
Although there has been no formal imposition of Emergency and fundamental rights have not been constitutionally debarred, principles and values cherished at the dawn of the Republic and even now by the majority, have been appreciably violated.
The much-delayed announcement of the poll schedule by the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Sunday evening 10 March – after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's blitzkrieg of official engagements inaugurating and launching programmes and schemes was over – is the most immediate symptom of the way constitutional institutions have been corroded, their autonomy eroded since 2014.
This is not the first instance of the fairness of the ECI under the Modi government being questioned. Previously, lack of impartiality was pointed out most famously when Gujarat polls were separated from those in Himachal Pradesh, held simultaneously in previous years, and the case involving disqualification of Aam Aadmi Party legislators.
Modi has Undercut Independent Institutions
Although use of money-power in elections is not a new phenomenon, regulations introduced in the garb of regulating indiscriminate use of financial clout in polls provided further opportunity to manipulate elections.
This is not a charge sheet against the Modi government on ways and instances of how the Modi government attacked constitutional democracy — this job is the opposition's, both before and during the election campaign. Yet, there is no escaping how undercutting neutrality and separation of institutions from the state have come into focus.
Questions raised after the unprecedented press conference by judges of the Supreme Court were never answered and even now, in public discourse, independence of the apex court is doubted by people even though the present Chief Justice of India was one of the judges who flagged disconcerting issues in January 2018.
Similar is the case with several other institutions and watchdogs ranging from the Lok Sabha Speaker, Chairman of Rajya Sabha, the Central Bureau of Investigations to even the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. One will have to conduct an institution-by-institution survey to compile an audit of constitutional bodies and institutions which remain untouched by pervasive control.
After 1977, 2019 Elections Are Significant
Speeches of the prime minister in the wake of the Pulwama attack and subsequent air strikes against the terrorist facility at Balakot provided ample proof of how governance and government has been personalised. In the latest instance, Modi claimed that after the air strikes, Pakistan began crying "Modi has hit us" whereas truth was that its spokesman levelled no personal accusation.
This election is most significant after 1977 because it has to be seen if the people are willing to accept a regime which uses words not for their meaning, but for their dramatic effect and if they are comfortable with shifting narratives incessantly used to keep people from asking questions because by the time they formulate one, they have already been inundated with new concerns, fresh worries and another set of hopes.
People have seen the number of jobless swell around them and been witness to rising rural stress. Yet, they are 'shown' data to tell them their assessment is wrong.
Asking for a simple dignified life and social security is frowned upon because the 'nation is under threat' from the imaginary 'other'. It is for the people to decide if they wish to regain the foundational and central principles of citizenship and the Indianness of yore.
How Modi Mixed Up Patriotism with His Version of Nationalism
Corruption, the buzzword around which Modi built a substantial part of his campaign, has been nibbling at the exteriors of this regime for a long time. Yet, accusations are swept aside by using the favourite weapon – whataboutery – and that too dug out from the past. Importantly, in the past five years, no substantial accusation of corruption has been levelled against any opposition government in any state for any misdemeanour during this period. Even Mamata Banerjee is accused for alleged past involvement in financial scams. In contrast, Rafale is not the only issue which haunts the government.
Indira Gandhi too used paranoid nationalism constantly talking about the "foreign hand" attempting to destabilise her regime and the country. But this government has gone beyond — Modi now claims that there is always an 'Indian hand' in anything that goes wrong for the nation. With the state becoming intrusive and raising fears of presiding over an all-arching surveillance mechanism, people sense fear lurking at every step. Many remain bottled up, as it often happens in similar situations. For them, the ballot is sole opportunity to rediscover their voice. The verdict will determine if their anguish is true or not.
Much was expected from Modi. He exuded new energy in an atmosphere of moribund stillness and this generated hope among the people. While there may have been some progress, like under every regime, the air people breath has become heavier. Besides controls and changes already mentioned, this is due the free run given to social media warriors and backers in the media who played their part in taking India further away from the dream of the Republic's founders.
On the eve of turning 81, Bertand Russeld wrote an essay, ‘How to Grow Old’. At the heart of a fulfilling life, he argued, was subsuming ego — like a river:
“An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”
Five years after being in office, this self-centred government and its leader remains but a gurgling stream, generating awe at the sound and fury it makes. The worry, however, is that the way mountain streams do, much of the banks through which it flows, have been eroded. This election will decide if repairs will be carried out in the future or not.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent books are ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached 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 the same.)