The Wire
The Wire Analysis
New Delhi

The Election Commission’s response to the Congress president’s concerns over the actual numbers of votes polled not being revealed has attracted strong criticism and doubts over the credibility of the electoral process that is underway.

The Election Commission (EC) has been strongly decried by senior political scientists. A primary function of the EC has been to infuse confidence in the objectivity and fairness of India’s electoral process. But the EC has been in the news for over a year now over questions about its autonomy and impartial functioning.

From the way appointments have been made, in contravention of the Supreme Court guidelines from May 2, 2023, to the sudden and unexplained exit of the former Election Commissioner Arun Goel, days before the announcement of the poll schedule, to its muted response to questions about electoral bonds, now deemed unconstitutional. Most recently, the EC has been questioned over the inordinately long poll schedule, postponing the polls in Anantnag, then abandoning its practice of sharing data on actual votes polled rather soon after polls closed in each phase, as well as meeting the media each time. The EC’s silence over hate and misinformation-laden speeches of the Prime Minister have also attracted comment.

Today, on May 10, Friday, the Election Commission responding to the Congress President and party veteran, Mallikarjun Kharge over his questions over the actual votes polled in the first three phases has been criticised for its tone and content of the response. The Commission rejected the charges of mismanagement and delay in the release of turnout data. The EC said that the opposition’s allegations were “highly undesirable and one that appears designed to create confusion/misdirection/impediment.” It said it was “reflective of a biased and deliberate attempt to spread confusion”.

But this from the commission – already facing strong criticism for its inability to establish fair rules of the game or hold the line to ensure a level playing field – has just ensured that more serious criticism comes its way, from scholars and experts who understand Indian political processes and have been watching and studying it over decades.

Political scientist and scholar who has taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is also chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics, Suhas Palshikar said, “An ECI busy responding to Congress President, has no time attending to the full-blown anti-Muslim campaign. Not even a meek murmur.”

Political scientist, Zoya Hasan, Professor Emerita, JNU told The Wire, “The Election Commission of India is one of the most prestigious and trusted institutions in the country. It is an institution that doesn’t just have to be fair, it also has to appear to be fair and neutral.”

She noted that “serious doubts have been raised about the impartiality of the ECI in the last decade. Questions have been asked about the scheduling of elections and the repeated violation of the MCC with no action taken against the Prime Minister or senior leaders of the BJP when they violate the law or mobilise support in the name of religion or caste.” She noted that “the system of the executive appointing the ECs is most problematic because it undermines the independence of the ECI. This was done in the past too but there was hardly any mistrust of the Commission probably because the Election Commissioners exercised autonomy in decision making and acted with greater discretion.”

She added that “the current ECI has lost credibility because its behaviour is perceived as being partisan. Without executive self-restraint or harder institutional firewalls to safeguard the independence of the ECI, India’s democracy remains under threat.”

In more serious comments, Suhas Palshikar had remarked on May 8, “The dead don’t rise and act. Autonomy of ECI, its powers, free & fair elections, are all dead. This, partly due to the design of union govt, partly due to self-abdicating jurisprudence by SC and partly by volition of members of the ECI themselves. RIP.”

Gilles Verniers, a seasoned scholar, familiar with the Indian political scene for decades and having steered the Trivedi Data Centre. Now Senior Fellow Centre for Policy Research and Karl Loewenstein Visiting Fellow at Amherst College has spoken of the low point that the Election Commission has hit, “Honest question: has there been a lower moment for the ECI? The scepticism they face is self-inflicted.”

Yogendra Yadav, well-known psephologist, formerly of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), and now National Convener of the Bharat Jodo Abhiyan said, “Election Commission of India is no longer an umpire, but a political player in this election.” He added that, “If you have any doubt, read the combative, accusatory and threatening tone of this letter.” Yadav went as far as to characterise this as “a new low in the history of this distinguished institution.”

Ashok Lavasa, former EC and the first to ever resign from the Commission in 2019, said in a discussion with Kapil Sibal for The Wire in Central Hall, that “the Election Commission will be judged by how it behaves with the ruling dispensation and not with the opposition.”

An INDIA delegation met the EC, and “spent 45 minutes to an hour” with them and “conveyed alarm, concern and a feeling of trust deficit.” Opposition representatives said they conveyed concerns over the absence of actual numbers, delays in the release of percentages and the steep jumps in final figures reported. Congress’s Abhishek Manu Singhvi said it was important to maintain the credibility of the electoral process and important to take measures. Singhvi said the party had submitted eleven complaints against statements of PM Modi and home minister Amit Shah, starting in early April and said no action had been taken, it must be taken. He said, “It was unprecedented in the history of the EC that notices were not sent to those against whom complaints had been filed, but to Party Presidents.”

Live Law reports that election watchdog, The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) has filed an application in the Supreme Court seeking to direct the Election Commission of India to publish the absolute numbers of votes polled immediately. ADR has that in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, the EC has published the voter turnout data of the phases after several days. The data regarding the first phase of polling held on April 19 was published after 11 days and the second phase of polling held on April 26 was published after 4 days. Also, there was a variation of over 5% in the final voter turnout data from the initial data released on the polling day.

“The data as published by the ECI in its press release dated April 30, 2024 shows a sharp increase (by about 5-6%) as compared to the initial percentages announced by ECI as of 7 PM on the day of polling. It is submitted that the inordinate delay in the release of final voter turnout data, coupled with the unusually high revision (of over 5%) in the ECI’s press note of April 30, 2024, and the absence of disaggregated constituency and polling station figures in absolute numbers, has raised concerns and public suspicion regarding the correctness of the said data,” read the application filed through Advocate Prashant Bhushan.

Boomlive reports that Arun Kumar Agrawal has sought a review of the Supreme Court’s verdict dismissing pleas for 100% VVPAT-EVM tally saying EVMs are especially vulnerable to malicious changes and EC officials could accurately complete the count within five to eight hours.

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