There is no better time than now to remind young readers of IAS officer T.N. Seshan, who transformed the Election Commission (EC) in the 1990s. This was a volatile period, with Hindu-Muslim clashes and caste conflicts, and Seshan went to extraordinary lengths to protect the integrity of India’s electoral process. Till then, the EC, an autonomous body conceived by India’s Constituent Assembly to supervise elections, had been struggling to deal with the criminalization of politics. As chief election commissioner (CEC), Seshan ruthlessly enforced the model code of conduct—guidelines to keep our polls free and fair. He punished politicians who flouted norms (in one famous case, a serving governor who campaigned for his son ended up resigning). While he was viewed by many as capricious, his measures changed how elections were seen by the public. As Christophe Jaffrelot observes in a piece on him in The Great March Of Democracy, “The same institution may have very different attitudes if its chief is strong or weak, disinterested or preparing for his next (post-retirement?) office."
Some things never change. The EC will always be exposed to political pressure. With the first phase of India’s general elections due to begin on Thursday, it is apparent that this pressure is increasing. And the EC, under CEC Sunil Arora, is not looking very good. There have been several complaints about the incumbent BJP government’s flouting of the model code of conduct. The most recent example is the case of NaMo TV, which appeared on screens a fortnight ago, carried by direct-to-home (DTH) satellite TV platforms across the country, and began airing speeches by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Upon objections by opposition parties, the EC wrote to the ministry of information and broadcasting, which is reported to have responded that the channel doesn’t fall under its purview as it functions as a “special platform" for DTH operators, for which government permission is not required. Since no specific laws have been broken, it appears that the channel can continue. Yet, for DTH companies to air an openly political channel via a slot usually used for in-house services and local news does raise eyebrows.
There have been other instances of alleged official media misuse. Consider the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on “Mission Shakti". While the EC has ruled that the decision by Doordarshan and All India Radio to air the speech live did not constitute a misuse of state machinery, the EC appears to have overlooked its political overtones. With the code of conduct in force, a bureaucrat should have announced it. More worryingly, campaign speeches that invoke religious sentiments, a clear violation of the code, have been made with increasing frequency. On 1 April, Modi attacked Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in a stump speech laced with majoritarian appeals. Elsewhere, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath referred to the Indian Army as “Modiji ki sena" (Modi’s army). While the EC has issued a notice to Adityanath on this case, it’s not clear what action it will take, if any. In another disturbing case, after Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh sought votes for Modi, the EC wrote about it to the President, who has the power to act. The law may not have been broken in many of these cases, but the spirit of the model code has clearly been stretched to the limit. If people lose faith in the EC’s ability to keep politicians from flouting norms, the fairness of elections will come under doubt. The EC needs to exercise its authority firmly.