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Walking a fine line

Not surprisingly, the world looks at our election management with awe and respect. Shouldn’t we acknowledge the role of this institution and savour our national success? If we decide not to be proud of it, let’s not at least weaken it by shaking public confidence, because this will cost our democracy dearly. SY Quraishi examines...

india Updated: May 13, 2009 22:54 IST

A recent debate in some sections of the media seems to suggest that the Election Commission (EC) is trying to over-regulate. There is a related perception that the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) looms like a dictator, converting the once-colourful election process into a quiet one. Some even suggest that the EC’s drive against the violation of the MCC and the Representation of People Act is “striking at the very roots of our democracy”. There is another line of attack. For every single person who thinks that the Code is dictatorial, there are many others who consider it (and the EC) ‘toothless’. According to this section, the Commission can only issue notices, it can do nothing more.

Is the prevailing election atmosphere “funereal and deathly quiet” — devoid of hulla gulla? The car rallies, rath yatras, public meetings, attacks and counter-attacks among political parties and the passionate TV debates don’t suggest so.

Likewise, a wrong impression has been created that there is a ban on flags, posters, cutouts, buntings, etc. All these are allowed subject to three provisos: (a) these will not be put up on public property, (b) these will be put up on private homes only with the prior written permission of the house owner/resident, and (c) the cost has to be accounted for, in view of the expenditure ceiling. Wall painting and posters are regulated by the local laws relating to the defacement of property. Incidentally, while flags, posters and wall paintings require prior written permission of the householder, the EC receives numerous complaints that this permission is often forcibly extracted.

This makes the poll panel and the citizens wonder whether a complete ban is the only way to save people from harassment and goondaism. There was, of course, a period of two-three years when there was over-strictness about flags and posters, but the Commission has recently liberalised these rules — on an experimental basis. And complaints have started pouring in.

Political advertising in TV and print has indeed gone up enormously, but this is not on account of the EC’s restriction on other media and canvassing methods. Twenty years ago, there was hardly any media, except Doordarshan and Akashvani and a handful of newspapers. Now there are over 300 TV channels and hundreds of newspapers vying for advertisements, and election time is surely their harvest season. The present law does not prescribe a ceiling on expenditure by political parties.

The worry that the role of cash in elections seems to be growing is, however, valid. Black money, always played a role in elections and with a booming economy, this role has grown bigger. We are aware of our limitations in eliminating the role of black money in elections. The exchange between the giver and the receiver takes place so clandestinely that the Commission is often in no position to catch it. But whenever instances came to our notice through a vigilant Opposition and alert media, we have acted promptly.

In the Karnataka Assembly elections in 2008, we had seized hard cash, liquor and goodies worth Rs 44.57 crore. In the same state, in the current election, the seizures have amounted to Rs 29 crore. Not petty amounts, for sure.

State-funding of elections and giving tax breaks to corporates are often suggested as ways to check money power. While the tax breaks have already been provided under Section 29B of the Representation of People Act through an amendment in 2003, the suggestion about State-funding in my opinion is not workable in view of the ground realities. It will be very naive to think that after State-funding is provided, the use of black money will disappear. In the process, thousands of crores of public money may go down the drain.

There is a suggestion that strict enforcement of the code has led to silent underground tactics. The fact is that underground tactics were always there. Innovative ways of booth capturing invented by ingenious minds are too many to be recounted here. The number of candidates with criminal backgrounds has only gone up despite the hoarse cries of well-meaning civil society organisations. This is one case where the EC is surely toothless, since it has no power to disqualify criminals from contesting the polls. The EC has made repeated appeals to the government over a decade to enact laws to debar charge-sheeted persons.

Then there is the observation that the sab neta chor hain mindset seems to animate the code. The code is a voluntary creation of the political parties themselves; the EC is only a neutral umpire. The poll panel does not believe in painting all politicians with a black brush. The sab neta chor hain mindset, reflected many times through the media, is extremely dangerous. Can there be democracy without politicians? Democracy is a very fragile form of government and public disenchantment often leads to its abandonment. The EC has been walking a fine line in discharging its constitutional responsibility, so that neither of the two charges — over-regulation and toothlessness — sticks.

Consider the end result of what the EC has done: the campaign has been less noisy and obtrusive; there has been a higher watch over personal abuse and a higher level of redressal in case of abuse; booth-capturing is now a rare happening; for the criminals, elections are less and less of a boom time now; poll violence has declined drastically, despite the spurt in extremist and terrorist activity; the poor, the weak and the vulnerable are able to come out and vote in safety; political parties and candidates do not harbour serious grievances against the conduct of elections, and they have been forthcoming about the level playing field set for them.

Not surprisingly, the world looks at our election management with awe and respect. Shouldn’t we acknowledge the role of this institution and savour our national success? If we decide not to be proud of it, let’s not at least weaken it by shaking public confidence, because this will cost our democracy dearly.

S.Y. Quraishi is Election Commissioner of India.