India is in the middle of five assembly elections. A timely Report to the People on the inclusiveness of electoral rolls; increasing criminalization and money power; opaque and fraudulent electoral bonds; severe violations of Model Code of Conduct; the biased role of media and lack of autonomy of the Election Commission is therefore important.
At a time when the declining standards of Indian democracy and loss of freedom are attracting national and international attention, the credibility of the country’s election process is questioned.
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Report on Challenges facing free and fair elections in India
The Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE), which had earlier brought out a comprehensive report on the flaws in the electronic voting system in India that had received wide public attention, has now come out with a new report on several other challenges facing free and fair elections in India. The CCE is chaired by Justice Madan Lokur, former Supreme Court Judge, and Wajahat Habibullah, former Chief Information Commissioner. It comprises jurists, senior academics, activists of civil society, and distinguished journalists.
Many of the concerns highlighted in the present report were evident in the Parliamentary election of 2019. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG) of former civil servants, and the Forum for Electoral Integrity (FEI) were among many groups that were compelled to draw public attention to the lack of fairness in the conduct of that election. Unfortunately, the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) response to these observations was marked by denial and an indifference bordering on hostility.
A significant exclusion of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups marks the electoral rolls in the country, according to the report. Whether deliberately or by oversight, minority communities and the homeless constitute a large proportion of those excluded from the rolls.
Two categories of voters still face challenges in exercising their franchise: migrant workers and the disabled. Effective redress of this would require the maintenance of records in a completely transparent and publicly verifiable manner, according to the CCE report. It adds that linking voter ID with Aadhar, far from being a solution, would lead to massive data leaks and frauds, and should not be undertaken at any cost.
Criminalization of Politics and the role of big money in elections
One of the major issues that the CCE report focuses on is the criminalization of politics and the role of big money in elections. The total expenditure incurred by political parties in the 2019 Parliament election is estimated to be a staggering Rs 60,000 crore working out to Rs. 110 crore per parliament seat! This is the root cause for the entire system of governance getting stinkingly corrupt.
While this itself is deeply distressing, the criminal background among the winning candidates presents a grimmer picture. If we look at the absolute number of MPs with declared criminal cases, it increased from 162 in 2009, to 185 in 2014 and to 233 in 2019. Those with serious declared criminal offenses increased from 76 in 2009 to 112 in 2014 and to 159 in 2019. This means, there has been a 109% increase in the number of MPs with serious criminal cases against them since 2009.
Role of Electoral bonds
The CCE report takes note of how electoral bonds, controversially brought into law as a Money Bill, have increased opaqueness and have consolidated the influence of money from unaccounted sources in elections. It has also, the CCE report observes, destroyed a level playing field for all parties in an election, giving an enormous and unfair advantage to the ruling party. In the event, it is extremely distressing to note that while its challenge in the Supreme Court is pending, the next round of electoral bond is scheduled for 1st April 2021 to enable the ruling party to collect thousands of crores of Rupees to bank-roll the Assembly elections in four states and one Union Territory.
Model Code of Conduct (MCC)
According to the report, ECI’s oversight with regard to the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) appears to be skewed in favor of the ruling party. During the 2019 Parliament election, the ECI deliberately delayed the announcement of the election in order to enable the prime minister to complete inaugurating a slew of projects. ECI’s 8-stage election schedule and long-drawn storage of EVM/VVPATs before counting has come in for suspicion and sharp criticism.
The CCE report also points out the lack of consistency in the way the ECI enforces the MCC and its partisan treatment of the ruling party’s transgressions. In 2019, for instance, an Election Commissioner who had dissented and stood his ground over such transgressions was made to quit the ECI and denied the opportunity to become Chief Election Commissioner. When it comes to the media, the CCE report critiques the manner in which mainstream and mass media find it advantageous to favor the ruling party in their coverage.
In 2019, the ECI failed to respond to several violations of media guidelines during elections, including the emergence of a new channel, Namo TV, that continuously telecast content centered on the prime minister. It also failed to curb fake news, online and offline, before and during the 2019 elections.
The ECI has plenipotentiary powers drawn from Article 324 of the Constitution of India to conduct free and fair elections, but the CCE report contends that the ECI has failed to make use of these powers to ensure the integrity of the election process. In fact, through its many acts of omission and commission, the EC has seriously undermined its own neutrality and compromised the fairness of elections in India.
India is declining from electoral democracy to electoral autocracy. CCE, therefore, believes that the time has come for citizens to understand and engage with this grave challenge facing Indian democracy. This report is an effort to further that goal.
MG Devasahayam, Co-ordinator
Sundar Burra, Convener
(Transcript of CCE Press Release)