A democracy thrives on the integrity, competency and neutrality of its public institutions. The Election Commission (EC) is arguably the single most important institution in a democracy. It is so critical for a democracy that quality of this institution is a baseline to evaluate the overall veracity of representative institutions. The EC is constitutionally entrusted to work as an agent who ensures that the sanctity of the election process is not vitiated or distorted.
The task of the EC then becomes even more important in a democracy like India where diversity is not an exception but a norm. Diversity in India exists along all possible lines- topography, belief, language, sensibilities, aspirations, and living standards among other things.
The task of the EC starts right from the enrolment process. Given the scale of India’s populace, one can imagine how massive this task is. The demographic transition India is going through makes it even more cumbersome. The fact that there are 81.4 Crore eligible voters this Lok Sabha election shows the sheer size of this enterprise.
The right to exercise one’s power to vote is the bedrock of modern democracies. So the EC is also mandated to energise the election process to ensure that the election results reflect true, broad based results. One fourth of India’s populace is still unlettered. A significant proportion of our people are physically challenged. Poor infrastructure and hard terrain poses accessibility challenges. Naxal affected areas and vulnerable polling stations pose security threats. These challenges call for innovative and sincere solutions. The EC has come up with some such solutions- vulnerability mapping of the polling booths, accessibility audits, deployment of central police forces, EVM-VVPAT among other things.
EC is also entrusted with the task of ensuring a level playing field and good spirit of the whole campaign process. It has devised a model code of conduct (MCC). It has also issued guidelines to be observed during campaigning. But this particular task has become increasingly more difficult in recent times due to evolution of new mediums of communications and innovative and overzealous campaigning. Social media is an evolving platform. It provides an intimate, immediate and democratic space for information dissemination and interaction. The scale and depth of this platform is so vast that it is practically impossible to oversee and regulate it in a liberal democracy like India. EC is still grappling with this challenge. There are no easy solutions to it. EC is opening itself up to new possibilities and a multi- stakeholder involvement.
In a zero sum game of state power, there is always a strain between different institutions and organisations. The EC is also alleged of constitutional usurpation by the political parties. The issue is about it issuing guidelines to be observed by political parties. These guidelines oblige political parties to give a rationale for their promises in manifestos and not vitiate the process and observe constitutional ideals. The contention is largely on the issue of regulation of promises held out in manifestos. While there is no doubt about the intention of the EC, there certainly is some merit in the opposition by political parties. Governance is a progressive process. The policy framework and financial rationale cannot be derived in an ex-ante sense. Indeed there should be a broad macro framework of policies laid put beforehand and the level playing field must be maintained. But it is simply impractical for any political party to give out a sound, precise rationale for all its work in an ex-ante sense. It can also be argued that such an obligation will increase the entry barriers in Indian politics. New political formation without prior experience of the governance process will face enormous difficulties framing such a manifesto. But these guidelines serve a great symbolic purpose. Political parties had better observe them in the spirit in which they are made.
Over the years, the EC has transformed itself into an institution which is trusted by Indian people. Its various recommendations and moves to keep up with the challenges of the times have strengthened the elections process. Its neutrality, efficiency and work ethic are well established now. Robustness of our election results, peaceful transition of power and people’s faith in the EC stand testimony to all its virtues.
It certainly is the dark knight of our democracy.
By Saurabh Goyal