Onus is on the ECI to build trust in elections - Hindustan Times
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Onus is on the ECI to build trust in elections

Apr 01, 2024 10:08 PM IST

The conduct or rather misconduct in the recent Chandigarh mayor election, though outside ECI’s jurisdiction, was a jarring note.

The announcement of national polls by the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in the company of two freshly appointed commissioners, and the apex court declining a stay on their appointments, should help quieten down the whispers around the resignation of a sitting commissioner. Significantly, the new appointments were made by a collegium for the first time following the enactment of the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023. Under the Bill, their actions in office are protected. The level of the search committee for their selection has been raised, and their prevailing ranks secured after apprehensions surfaced that their conduct could be compromised otherwise. The merit of the law has been debated through the prism of stakeholders, especially of political parties, and dissent could linger.

As elections commence, one will see lakhs of government employees drawn from both central and state governments converging under the direct control of ECI.(Pics for representation)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
As elections commence, one will see lakhs of government employees drawn from both central and state governments converging under the direct control of ECI.(Pics for representation)(HT_PRINT)

With the model code having kicked in, one needs to reckon that in India’s mature democracy, the integrity of the election process does not begin and end with one official. Perceptions regarding the three-member Election Commission of India (ECI) and its modest team of officials in Delhi are at times exaggerated. No doubt they lead nationally, but the apparatus to deliver spotlessly correct elections periodically is much larger.

As elections commence, one will see lakhs of government employees drawn from both central and state governments converging under the direct control of ECI. The conduct of these officials remains under constant scrutiny with several examples of errant officers being taken to task. Poll officials are like Caesar’s wife; they must be above suspicion. The fact that key personnel are career civil servants, bound by rules, helps the cause. A staggering 15 million staff may get engaged in the 2024 polls. Each of the over 700 districts of the country has a District Election Officer and each of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies has a returning officer, with defined roles under the Representation of the People Act. Their fair and efficient conduct has been crucial in the acceptance of election results by both winners and losers each time.

Over 2,000 observers are appointed by ECI to monitor the campaign process, election expenditure, poll day events and post-poll verification. Observers serve as the eyes and ears of the commission on the ground. An ingrained system of checks and balances and of oversight has been the bedrock of India’s election management, refurbished by technology.

Those who man the million-plus polling stations with customised designations such as presiding officer and polling officer are often schoolteachers or junior officials drawn from a plethora of departments. These staffers receive intense training in laws and procedures, use of voting equipment like the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) and get turbocharged for non-partisan discharge of duty. Their deployment is thrice randomised to ensure neutrality. Lakhs of central and state police forces stand guard against any assault on the due process of polls.

Trust in the election machinery is no small anchor of the country’s electoral system. Election officials in other parts of the world have not enjoyed this unblemished credibility. The recent disputed national election recently in Pakistan is just one example. When pathological aspects of the Indian elections are counted, it is the role of black money, criminals in politics and, of late, corruption in the media and messages that are loudly spoken of. The disclosure of donors and recipients in electoral bonds, forced by the apex court, should help bring a layer of transparency in campaign finance that constitutes an essential nerve of electoral integrity. The exact quid pro quo will emerge from details and analysis. Rigorous security management and disclosure of candidate antecedents combined with the switch from ballot box to EVM have reduced criminal influence. But there is still a distance to cover on both fronts.

The conduct or rather misconduct in the recent Chandigarh mayor election, though outside ECI’s jurisdiction, was a jarring note. The Supreme Court’s order upturning the result, and its scathing observations on the poll official’s action serve as a timely alert. Such a fiasco can provide ammunition to conspiracy theories to vilify the usually legitimate contests.

ECI’s commitment to deliver free, fair and transparent elections is based on an assessed confidence to keep its massive workforce immune from the Chandigarh infection. This confidence is not born with one arrival, nor does it die with one departure.

Akshay Rout is former director general, Election Commission of India. The views expressed are personal

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