In a general election, especially in the upcoming election marked as a life-and-death contest, it is not only the strength of parties and candidates that is put to test. The credibility, impartality and efficiency of the Election Commission (EC) are also assessed in the process. No doubt, being the largest democratic process in the world, India's electoral exercise is a huge challenge.
All the same, it is also true that there are several existing factors that come to the aid of Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora and his team. The strongest among them are the long expertise attained by the country in running the electoral machinery and the robust precedents related to the conduct of polls.
The strength which the colossal former Election Commissioner TN Seshan gave to the election mechanisms is no small. Seshan's era left behind a legacy in which anyone from top politicians to the well-entrenched bureaucrats was forced to abide by rules. The result: a stable framework for efficient running of elections. What ensured the availability of equal opportunity for all candidates without giving an upper hand to the ruling side, is the code of conduct. It is for the Election Commission to convince the country, as much as convincing itself, that the code is strictly complied with.
The Commission got a splendid opportunity to prove its neutrality with the incident of the prime minister informing the nation through a televised speech about India successfully testing a satellite-busting missile ('Mission Sakti'). CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury filed a complaint with the EC that it was not correct when the model code of conduct was in force. The Commission got the complaint reviewed by a five-man committee of the Commission itself. The conclusion of the committee was that there was no violation of the code. Many who compared this to the term of Seshan have expressed disappointment with this conclusion. The committee judged that there was no misuse of official machinery in this, and that it was not broadcast by Doordarshan or Akashvani.
It was reasoned that neither the government nor the party had claimed its parentage. True, there may be room for such technical justifications going by the letter of the code. However, beyond the skeleton of technicalities, Seshan and others had paid attention to the spirit of the social reality. Here the Commission examined only section 7 of the code which says that the party in power shall not use the official media for its publicity. However, the content of the prime minister's speech was one that gave an unfair advantage to the ruling party, and that was the very purpose of that speech. Although in his address Modi did not directly claim parentage of the achievement, the ruling party's claim to that and wide use of the event do constitute violation of the code. In the normal course, it is the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRD) that makes such declarations. The inappropriateness of the prime minister himself doing it during election time is (even if not seen by the Commission) all too clear.
In the case of the statement by Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh, the Commission can been seen to have acted in a much stronger manner. He said that he was a BJP 'karyakarta' and that BJP workers had a duty to bring Modi to power again, statements that cannot be justified by any standards. Saying that the statement was a violation of the code of conduct, EC referred the matter to the President to decide what action to take. Because he has proven unfit to continue as Governor, it would not have been too much even if the Commission had recommended his removal. There is a history relevant in the context: two decades ago, when Himachal Pradesh governor Gulshar Ahmad made an election campaign for his son in Madhya Pradesh, EC expressed disapproval and he resigned. It is a practice becoming of EC to act against the puissant when they infringe the code. While communalism is detrimental to the integrity of the country and the spirit of the code, the prime minister reacted to Rahul Gandhi's candidacy in Wayanad by publicly inciting communal sentiments. EC's response to his statement in that speech that Rahul fled fearing Hindus, can only been seen as feeble.
Certainly, as the contest intensifies, the challenge before EC will also get stronger. Ipso facto, code violations in the first instances should be pulled up with greater alertness. Once the Commission is felt to be weak, violations will increase. There is a chief minister who made Indian army 'Modi's force'. Hate speeches are continuing. Election campaigns degenerate to indecent character assassination. At the same time, even EC is stepping forward to bar real issues being brought before the public. An instance of this came when the release of a book describing the Rafale deal was stopped. Although, that step was subsequently corrected, the impression it left about EC is far from positive.