Biased umpiring: Election Commission faces a credibility crisis

There is growing fear that the EC is nothing but an in-house unit of the government

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In the 1980s, then Pakistan cricket captain, later Pak Prime Minister Imran Khan demanded something revolutionary. Khan called for 'neutral umpires'. Pakistan was a mighty team and regularly won matches at home, but its victories were often coloured by allegations of biased umpiring.

Imran Khan’s decision on neutral umpires came as a breath of fresh air. It immediately lifted Pakistan’s status in the world of cricket. New umpires from different countries flew in to judge Pakistan’s game. Now, every time the team triumphed it was because it had won in a fair fight.

Transpose Pakistan’s 1980s umpiring shortfalls to India’s Election Commission today. Just like the Pak umpires of yore, today’s EC faces a severe credibility crisis. The EC is failing to create a level playing field for all parties in the general elections of 2024. How can you have a fair game when the umpire only allows one side to win?

The way the Modi government appointed the present Election Commissioners, former IAS officers Gyanesh Kumar and Sukhbir Singh Sandhu was astounding. In a unanimous judgement delivered on March 2, 2023, the Supreme Court had held that the selection of all election commissioners including the Chief Election Commissioner would be carried out by a three-member committee comprising the Chief Justice, the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition. But in December 2023 the Modi government passed the controversial Election Commissioners Act removing the CJI from the selection committee and replacing the CJI with a cabinet minister chosen by the PM.

The EC now consists of the LoP as a token and the other two as ruling party representatives. The Modi government went in direct contravention of the SC’s March judgement to tighten its hold on the appointment of the EC. How can the Election Commission be seen to be a neutral umpire when it is almost entirely appointed by the ruling party and seen to be the BJP’s yes-men?

The Modi regime likes to capture democratic institutions to force its way. It has bulldozed through its nominees in the EC. In 2019 then Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa had wanted his dissent recorded on the way the EC was giving a series of clean chits to Modi’s allegedly divisive speeches. Lavasa’s dissent was not recorded, instead, he was forced out and sent on deputation to the ADB in the Philippines. No wonder there is growing fear that the EC is nothing but an in-house unit of the government.

On 19th March, in a speech in Salem, Tamil Nadu, Modi said the following words: “INDIA alliance is repeatedly and deliberately insulting Hinduism. They are planting thoughts against Hinduism. They don’t speak against other religions. But whenever they get a chance, they insult Hinduism without waiting for a second. How can we tolerate this? How can we allow this?”

Modi’s openly inflammatory words are a brazen flouting of the Model Code of Conduct and the Representation of Peoples Act that forbids references to religion during a campaign. A Supreme Court judgement has described such religious references during an election as a "corrupt practice". But has the EC taken note of Modi’s speech or censured it? No, it has not. The EC similarly turned a deaf ear to Yogi Adityanath’s speech in 2022 during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls when Adityanath referred to the election as a game of "80% vs 20%" referring to religious communities.

The EC displayed its tin ear when Modi made a speech in 2019 referring to Rahul Gandhi’s candidature from Wayanad, Kerala as a place where "the majority is the minority." In the 2019 Jharkhand polls, Modi described anti- CAA protestors in prejudiced language. "People who are setting fire to property can be seen on TV. They can be identified by the clothes they are wearing." During UP Assembly polls in 2017, Modi referred to kabristaan (graveyard) shamshaan (cremation ground) Ramzan, and Diwali. In fact, the prime minister is a repeat offender of communal language at election time repeatedly appealing to religion for votes and cunningly trying to stoke religious divides. But the EC has refused to rein in politicians who seek votes on grounds of religion.

The EC’s poll schedule devised for the General Elections of 2024 smacks of unfairness. In these days of smart technology and the T-20 pace of life, election schedules should get shorter not longer. But this time the EC has designed a dizzyingly elongated schedule to benefit the BJP with its deep pockets in a timetable that allows Modi to make his travel plans to campaign at leisure. The level playing field has been wiped out. A 5- phase election for peaceful Maharashtra is inexplicable. A 7- phase election for Bengal is clearly aimed at carpet bombing Bengal by Modi and a sly attempt to exhaust the Trinamool Congress.

When the EC acts, it is usually against the opposition. Notices are sent to Rahul Gandhi over the use of certain words. In TMC-ruled Bengal the EC changed 3 DGPs in 24 hours. Opposition-ruled states are regularly dubbed ‘violence prone.’ There has been no dialogue between the EC and the opposition’s demand to install VVPAT machines (which allow the voter to see if her vote has registered correctly) across all polling booths. The opposition is kept on tenterhooks and finds itself regularly caught in the EC’s crosshairs, even as the BJP remains blithely immune from the EC’s scrutiny. Far from being a neutral umpire there is apprehension that the Election Commission, much like the Enforcement Directorate, is Team BJP’s 12th man.

What a far cry from the thunderous TN Seshan, Election Commissioner from 1990-1996 who once declared, “I eat politicians for breakfast.” Seshan cracked down on electoral malpractices across the board and introduced several reforms so that almost 2000 candidates in the 1999 general elections were disqualified on various counts. By ensuring a fear of the law, Seshan inspired confidence in India’s polling process.
The responsibility of the Election Commission is a grave one: to be feared by politicians and to be admired by citizens by standing as a sentinel on India’s most precious inheritance, the integrity of the voting process. If it fails to do this the EC will be a compromised referee who always declares victory for one team, and defeat for the other. Does the Election Commission of India today want to be compared to the biased cricket umpires of the 1980s in Pakistan?

(The writer is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, All India Trinamool Congress)