By Sunday evening, the excruciatingly long general election of 2019 will have come to an end. By the afternoon of May 23, the country will digest the results and slowly come to terms with the overall verdict. In the interregnum, there will be the exit polls and a dissection of the role of the Election Commission. There will be those who will doubt any verdict because they are unconvinced of the integrity of the Electronic Voting Machines.

Others will claim that the EC failed to provide a level playing field. In West Bengal, where the election campaign was terribly vitiated and violent, the. EC even had to take the extraordinary step of curtailing campaigning by a day — an admission of its helpless inability to control things.

Another aspect of the EC’s work will be scrutinised and debated in the coming months: the extent to which the body can be the arbiter of political rhetoric. This is unquestionably a grey area. In the distant past, the EC used to take a detached view of verbal transgressions, leaving the final judgment to the courts in the event of an election petition. However, in this election, it has insisted on a semblance of decorousness.

Since what is permissible by way of rhetoric and what transcends the letter and spirit of the rules is, in any event, a matter of subjective judgment, the EC has inevitably been drawn into controversy. It is unlikely that there will be any satisfactory resolution of this matter, either now or in the future. There will always be sharp political divisions in a democracy and, when translated into the popular idiom, there will always be scope for an offence.

The larger question for the future is to decide once and for all if the EC should get into this debate on free speech at all. My own feeling is that EC interventions should be limited exclusively to threatening behaviour and incitement of violence. Everything else should be left to the good sense of the electorate and, in the ultimate analysis, to the wisdom of the courts.

The more important question centres on the integrity of the poll process. A lot of attention has been focussed on money power. Over the years, the EC has put in place a monitoring mechanism to ensure that candidates and parties stay within the expenditure limit. It is always difficult to monitor expenditure — particularly the use of cash for voter inducement — precisely. It can safely be said that most candidates spend much more than they are supposed.

The unofficial estimate of the real expenditure per constituency often exceeds the permitted amount by more than 200 per cent. In southern India, the expenses are even higher because micro-level bribery has become customary. Is there a feasible way in which expenditure can be regulated without jeopardising the legitimate publicity expenses of candidates in constituencies that are truly large? The answer is probably in the negative.

In which case, two solutions can be contemplated. First, to remove the ceiling altogether but insist on candidates giving a faithful account of the expenditure, along with the sources of funding. Secondly, to determine a separate limit for expenses on polling day when the huge army of polling agents have to be fed, transported and even provided pocket money. This may seem preposterous to NGOs who have appointed themselves as watchdogs of competitive politics but it is a conclusion that stems from practical experience.

To my mind, the issue of greater consequence is the right of voters to make up their minds and vote without intimidation and intrusive supervision. In large parts of the country, even where electoral competition is fierce, a free vote is taken for granted. The democratic spirit is alive and thriving in most parts of India. However, there are areas where the process is seriously flawed.

The EC is handicapped by the fact that the election process is totally dependent on the cooperation of the local administration. However, in a state where the local administration is excessively partisan, the creation of a level playing field has become virtually impossible.

The injection of Central para-military forces to boost local confidence is, of course, helpful but since such an outside depends exclusively on local guidance, their effectiveness is often compromised. The electronic media has reported cases of polling officers looking the other way as local toughs either take over booths or force voters to vote in a particular way.

In other places, polling agents of some political parties are forcibly prevented from sitting inside the room where polling is being held. And finally, there are booths where large scale impersonation happens — often with the active collusion of poll officers.

Normally, the EC takes a statistical view of the problem. If less than five per cent of booths are adversely affected, the inclination to order a repoll is less marked, unless there was a malfunctioning EVM. This is an unsatisfactory approach. If a contest is precariously close, the winner may well be chosen on the strength of votes that were improper. In West Bengal, there was a large number of complaints but there were hardly any booths where repoll was ordered.

More to the point, no action appears to have been taken against polling staff that either colluded in the derailment of democracy or didn’t report the malpractices. Unless exemplary action is taken at all levels against officials guilty of dereliction of duty, the sanctity of the poll process cannot be made fool-proof.

These are the questions that should be the focus of the coming debate on the EC. Instead, the focus will be on the EC’s role as the monitoring authority of political grandstanding. And on whether the Prime Minister should have used such a phrase or not.

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