For EC, criticism at home, praise overseas

Livemint, May 28, 2014

Never has the Election Commission been as vilified as it was during India?s 16th general elections

The Bharatiya Janata Party?s (BJP?s) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi accused it of bias.

Voters in Mumbai, including many high-profile ones, criticised it for incomplete voter lists that prevented them from casting their vote.

And it had to bear the cross of enforcing a so-called model code of conduct that effectively brought policymaking in the world?s largest democracy to a halt.

The Election Commission of India may be receiving accolades from several quarters for conducting the world?s largest elections, but never has the constitutional body been as vilified as it was during India?s 16th general elections.

It may have been the tone and tenor of the campaign itself, or simply the fact that the elections dragged on for almost a month and half (in nine phases).

Or, it may have been, as India?s chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath sees it, a reaction to a body that was just doing its job and sticking to the rules.

?The Election Commission has been taking tough measures during this election, particularly against those against whom there was a prima facie case of hate speech,? Sampath said. The Commission pulled up BJP?s Giriraj Singh and Amit Shah, and Samajwadi Party?s (SP?s) Azam Khan on this count.

?Never before has the Election Commission been attacked so publicly. The number of hate speeches during the entire election was very high, due to which the Commission had to issue several notices. Wherever action was required, it was taken,? said K.J. Rao, a former adviser to the body, credited with ensuring free and fair assembly elections in 2005 in Bihar, a state notorious for poll violence.

The Commission acted fairly, stressed Sampath. ?For every accusation of bias, there is a background in which the Commission had to take a firm stand on the basis of substantive evidence,? he added.

The sharpest criticism of the Commission came from Modi, since sworn in as the country?s 14th prime minister, who repeatedly accused it of being partisan.

One such attack came after the Commission refused him permission to hold an election rally in Varanasi, from where he was contesting.

The situation wasn?t helped by one of the other election commissioners, Hari Shankar Brahma, admitting that the body could have prevented the delay in taking a decision on this.

?The delay could have been avoided,? said Rao.

Nor was it helped by the Commission?s aggressive stance. It said it wasn?t ?afraid of any political party? and called a press conference to air its views. ?I still feel that the press briefing was not at all necessary,? added Rao, who is also general secretary of the Foundation for Advanced Management of Election, a non-governmental organization founded by former chief election commissioners.

It wasn?t just the BJP.

Nearly every major political party, other than the Indian National Congress, publicly criticised the poll watchdog.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham patriarch M. Karunanidhi wondered ?whether they are neutral or pretending to be so?; Trinamool Congress head and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee initially refused to obey the Commission?s order to transfer eight officials; SP?s Mulayam Singh Yadav dared the Commission to act against him; and Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Prakash Karat alleged ?widespread rigging? in West Bengal, accusing the Commission of having ?failed in its duty of ensuring a free and fair poll.?

?They went through some difficulties and I think every commission goes through this process. Those who are unhappy criticize, those who are satisfied will not,? said T.S. Krishnamurthy, India?s former chief election commissioner who oversaw the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

?Normally, we issue press statements but there is always an option of filing a first information report if a said violation can be brought under the Representation of People?s Act,? he added.

The fact that the Congress, head of the outgoing United Progressive Alliance government that received a drubbing in the elections, did not complain against the Commission seemed strange.
Individual voters weren?t happy too.

In Haryana, for instance, soon after polling took place on 10 April, there were several complaints of rigging. But repolling at eight booths in Gurgaon took place only on 15 May, more than a month after the original date of polling and a day before the results were to be announced.

The sharpest criticism came from Mumbai, where large numbers of names were missing from the electoral rolls. Brahma later admitted to a ?massive operational mistake? and apologized for the lapse in an interview with PTI.

Sampath, however, cited a Bombay high court order in the commission?s defence and said the ?process was substantially transparent and above board? .

The Commission oversaw a mammoth exercise with 834 million registered voters, of which 553 million exercised their franchise. The entire election was stretched over nine phases over a month in 543 parliamentary constituencies.

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