When did you last hear that quaint phrase booth-capturing? If you haven’t come across it even as elections are on in places like Uttar Pradesh, have you wondered why? The answer is quite simple. It is because of the Election Commission (EC). It is an oasis of excellence in an otherwise muddied atmosphere simply because it is executing its constitutional mandate without fear or favour.
In the past, especially in the northern belt, it was de rigeur during elections for the henchmen of one or other neta to pop around to the booth during polling and cast the votes themselves or intimidate people into voting for the candidate of their choice. No longer. Such people have made themselves scarce thanks to a vigilant EC which has refused to be cowed down by any politician.
No sooner had Union law minister Salman Khurshid come up with the self-serving promise of 9% quota for minorities within the sub-quota for jobs in the state government were the Congress to come to power in UP, the EC opened up the heavy artillery forcing Khurshid to beat a hasty retreat. Similarly, when Robert Vadra decided to take out a showy motorcycle rally, the EC stopped him in his tracks on the grounds that the 100-strong cavalcade of motorcycles he was leading violated the 10-vehicle norm laid down by the EC.
The heartwarming message is that the system works, irrespective of who is the chief election commissioner. To his credit, it was the rough and ready TN Seshan who put the EC on the map. Of course, he spoilt it by his megalomania and his over the top appearances in advertisements chomping carrots and gabbling on about how he eats politicians for breakfast. He also blotted his copybook image by trying to join the very political system he so disdained after he demitted office.
But, his successors proved no less effective in bringing an errant political class to heel. The soft-spoken JM Lyngdoh was such a stickler for rules that he moved Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to refer to him in public rallies as James Michael Lyngdoh in a sly reference to the fact that he is a Christian. In the narrow focus world of Hindutva, that means foreigner of the same ilk as Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
From the days of EC activism by Seshan, today the EC has become a well-oiled machine with the CEC SY Quraishi preferring to stay out of the spotlight and get on with the job. And very well at that. Yes, covering stone elephants and statues may be a little too excessive but the EC’s strength lies in playing by the book. And clearly, the message has gone home to the political class. Mayawati may be the unchallenged leader of the Dalits and the only man in her cabinet but her remark on the EC is telling.
“Khula haathi lakh ka, dhaka haathi sava lakh ka” (If an uncovered elephant is worth one lakh rupees, a covered elephant is worth 1.25 lakh rupees).
The EC has chosen to ignore that one.
Of course, during the tenure of successive CECs, some have been accused of being anti-national, casteist, anti-Dalit, pro-ruling party and so on. But, today, the EC has perfected the art of letting the caravan move on and managing elections with very few glitches. So much so that other countries, including developed countries, are trying to study the Indian model.
But the lesson for me lies in what miracles can be wrought when you empower a person and his office and leave well alone. The EC in the past was somewhat like the Central Bureau of Investigation, perceived as yet another arm of the government. Today, such a charge would be laughed out of court.
Incorruptibility combined with efficiency has streamlined one of the biggest and most complicated electoral systems in the world.
I am not suggesting that the EC is beyond reproach. But in many ways, it has come to enjoy the credibility that the army once had. Seshan made the EC all about his own larger-than-life personality. Perhaps that was required at that time to get the creaky election machinery moving. But where the EC has bucked the trend in so many of our personality-driven institutions is in that it has superseded the persona of the person who heads it. Its work is carried forward by the thousands of people who endure considerable hardship to go to all corners of the country lugging their electronic voting machines to ensure that everyone gets to cast their vote. For me, this is what sustains my faith in democracy. My vote is for the EC, the real custodian of the idea of India.