Editorial: An Act Of Faith, Now Betrayed?

Editorial: An Act Of Faith, Now Betrayed?

FPJ EditorialUpdated: Friday, May 24, 2024, 08:31 PM IST
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Representational Image | File

An ‘act of faith’ was how the first Chief Election Commissioner of independent India, mathematician, and bureaucrat Sukumar Sen, described the general election of 1951-52. It was a formidable task by any standard — universal adult franchise of every Indian above the age of 21, enumerating 176 million potential voters, their high illiteracy and complete unfamiliarity of the electoral process, registering political parties and assigning symbols to them, and this stupendous work to be carried out amidst the troubling remnants of the colonial rule of over 200 years and the divisive legacy of the Partition. The first free election in India was, as author and historian Ramachandra Guha noted, democracy’s biggest gamble.

Sen was undoubtedly hurried by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who wanted a free and fair election in the shortest possible time after the Constitution of India was adopted. Sen’s approach and conduct set the tone for how the Election Commission of India (ECI) would eventually acquire an identity and discharge its constitutional responsibility of presiding over a political process while remaining outside the political domain, as scholars have pointed out. His successors upheld the integrity of the electoral process in greater or lesser measure depending on their ability to insulate the ECI from political pressures of the day and follow the book, as it were. Looking back, democracy’s biggest gamble paid off handsomely, given the encomiums that came from around the world for the massive and complex exercise that is India’s general elections, even from the developed nations that had been quick to write off the 1951-52 elections. Equally important, the fairness and integrity of the electoral process was appreciated.

Fast forward to 2024 when the ballot paper is a part of history too, voters’ familiarity with the process, higher literacy rates, technological advancements, and decades of experience would have made the ECI’s task a lot easier. Yet, unfortunately, when the history of the ongoing election is written, there is likely to be a lot more condemnation and denunciation of the ECI than ever in the past. Based on news reports and complaints from around the country in the five phases of voting held so far, with two more to go and results to be declared on June 4, it appears that there have been inexplicable changes in the electoral process, withholding of information from voters of something as simple and basic as the total voter turnout in absolute numbers, and an unwillingness to be seen as above reproach and suspicion.

The very appointment of Election Commissioners without the participation of the Chief Justice of India made the august institution more beholden to the Narendra Modi government than the ECI has been to any government in the past. Then, at least 22 different kinds of compromises in the electoral process have been recorded so far from different parts of the country. These traverse a wide arena from allotting party symbols to breakaway factions rather than the parent parties and turning a blind eye to rival candidates dropping out of the fray to disallowing contestants to register against mighty leaders of the ruling party, voter suppression tactics which include names missing from electoral rolls to slow voting during summer heat, intimidation of voters and malfunctioning EVMs, possible vote manipulation with strongroom failures and unexplained rise in voter turnouts after a delay in declaring them. And telling the Supreme Court that this data cannot be given to people whose right it is to know. These come on the back of freezing accounts of opposition parties and similar deterring tactics.

Taken together, these constitute an attack on the heart of the electoral process and its integrity. Equally, these make for an unpardonable transgression of the voters’ rights and privileges in a free and fair election. The SC does not come out smelling of roses either in preferring to give the ECI a long rope or look the other way while the manipulation, intimidation, suppression, and transgressions besmirch the process and raise questions about its credibility. The three gentlemen in the ECI will complete their term and move on but, in allowing such a massive slide in the electoral process, worse than at any time in the past, they would have damaged the institution of the Election Commission of India itself. And left a stain on the legacy of their stalwart-predecessor like Sukumar Sen.

It does not end here. The question is, given the compromises and transgressions, what sanctity the result to be declared on June 4 will hold and how much faith India’s voters will continue to place in the institution in the years to come.

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