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REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
The damage has been done.
WHOM TO TRUST?

Five reasons why the credibility of India’s election commission was questioned this year

By Niharika Sharma

The Indian election commission is battling a crisis of credibility.

The body, which “administers elections to the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, state legislative assemblies in India, and the offices of the president and vice-president,” as its website says, is facing a barrage of problems chipping away at its aura of impartiality.

Founded in 1950, the election commission has traditionally been highly respected for its institutional integrity and impeccable handling of such as a massive exercise as the Indian election.

However, right from holding the 2019 elections in seven phases during peak summer to allegedly extending a series of waivers to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), many of its decisions have baffled observers. The delay in prompt action taken against the politicians breaching the model code of conduct (MCC) had also got people concerned on social media.

As it counts the votes today (May 23), all eyes are on the poll body.

Meanwhile, here are the five major issues that have put the spotlight on the poll body headed by chief election commissioner Sunil Arora over the past few months:

Errors in voter enrollment

Right in the first phase of elections on April 11, many eligible voters could not find their names on the voting list, depriving them of their democratic right.

One such voter was RC Bhargava, chairman of Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest car maker. “My name was there in the list but across it, somebody had stamped deleted. Somebody decided to delete me from the list,” Bhargava told the news agency IANS.

The miffed resident of Uttar Pradesh’s Noida then said he will seek clarification on the deletion from concerned authorities.

Many voters across India had similar complaints. The ruling outfit in Delhi, Aam Aadmi Party, alleged that hundreds of thousands of voter names had been deleted without any reason. However, the election commission has rejected these allegations.

The problem of deletion was reported much before the election began. In November 2018, an investigation by various media houses suggested that millions of voters’ name, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, were left out of the electoral process due to the linkage of election photo identity card and Aadhaar taken up by the election commission in 2015. Documents that Quartz had accessed showed that the poll commission itself was worried about issues like coercion and wrongful deletion of voter names.

Clean chits to PM Modi

Voters weren’t the only ones to express dissatisfaction with the poll panel.

The opposition alleged that it was favouring the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). They mainly questioned the basis for a series of “clean chits” extended to Modi despite his provocative campaign tactics that pushed the boundaries of the election commission’s model code of conduct, which is a set of guidelines that political parties must follow to ensure a level playing field and a credible electoral process.

For instance, at a rally in the western state of Maharashtra, Modi invoked the armed forces in his speech while making an appeal to first-time voters. “Can your first vote be dedicated to those who carried out the airstrike? I want to tell the first-time voters: can your first vote be dedicated to the veer jawans (brave soldiers) who carried out the air strike in Pakistan. Can your first vote be dedicated to the veer shaheed (brave martyrs) of Pulwama (terror attack),” he had said.

The local electoral officers found Modi’s appeal to be “inconsistent” with the poll watchdog’s instructions, according to the Indian Express newspaper. Yet, to everybody’s surprise, though, he was exonerated by the election commission.

Earlier, the poll panel cleared Modi over another of his speeches in Maharashtra in which he invoked religion.

The problem got so acute that on May 04 election commissioner Ashok Lavasa recused himself from meetings on poll code violations. He disagreed with the panel’s decisions to clear Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah of charges of violating the model code.

Suspension of a government officer

Another incident that created a furore and indicated uncalled for flexibility on the constitutional body’s part involved the suspension of a senior government officer for doing his duty.

Mohammed Mohsin, a 1996-batch Indian administrative service officer, was suspended for checking the prime minister’s chopper in Odisha’s Sambalpur when Modi reached there to address a rally on April 17. The inspection by a team of poll officials, which included Mohsin, had allegedly delayed the PM’s arrival at the rally venue by 15 minutes.

According to the electoral guidelines, those under the cover of India’s special protection group are exempt from such checks. “The commission has considered the material available before it and, prima facie found dereliction of duty. It found Mohsin’s action was contrary to its instruction concerning SPG protectees,” the poll panel said.

However, on April 25, his suspension was revoked but he was barred from election duty in future.

Curtailing campaigning hours in Bengal

For the first time ever, the election commission on May 15 decided to cut short the campaign period by 19 hours for the eastern state of West Bengal. The unprecedented move followed the eruption of violence during BJP president Shah’s roadshow in Kolkata, the state capital.

The panel decided to advance the commencement of the mandatory silent period. Yet, Modi’s campaigning schedule in the state remained unaffected as he had two rallies planned before the 10 pm deadline.

State chief minister’s Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, along with the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), alleged that the commission’s decision intentionally left the window open for Modi.

Reports of EVMs being transported without security

The latest doubts over the election commission’s integrity came amidst reports of the electronic voting machines (EVMs) being transported without the appropriate level of security as per the mandatory guidelines.

Many on social media, including former election commissioner SY Quraishi, questioned the alleged lapse. They expressed fears that in the absence of proper security arrangements the counting process could be manipulated.

The poll panel, though, dismissed these claims stating the EVMs that were used to register votes were all under 24-hour security.

However, without questioning the authenticity of the said videos, it claimed the machines they featured were “reserve” EVMs, usually meant to replace malfunctioning ones.