The polarized campaign in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections has put the spotlight firmly on the referee: The Election Commission of India (ECI). Given its role as an impartial election ombudsman, the ECI is responsible for identifying potential violations of the model code of conduct (MCC) during the election process.

With Indian democracy developing into a truly multi-party system, the ECI faces a challenge in remaining truly non-partisan. An article by Manjari Katju of the University of Hyderabad, published in the Economic and Political Weekly, traces how the role of the ECI has evolved from the years of a single dominant party to the hyper-competitive political environment that it confronts today.

While the ECI remains one of the institutions most trusted by the public, the author argues that the body needs reforms to remain relevant.

In a multi-party coalition environment, to ensure the ECI remains free from political bias, its members should be debarred from any future political and diplomatic appointments. More importantly, the author suggests the ECI should ensure proper safeguards for political and ethnic minorities, opposition groups and ordinary citizens to allow them to participate in elections freely and without fear.

The ECI also must support mediation between the central and state governments, and between political parties on matters that have implications for elections.

Finally, the author calls for a more proactive ECI. The commission has the power to suspend or withdraw recognition of a political party for its failure to abide by the model code of conduct. Although violations occur at great regularity, it has rarely exercised this power. Rather, it has stopped at issuing warnings and reprimands.

Also read: Election Commission and Changing Contours of Politics