With half of the polling phases to the 17th Lok Sabha over, polling percentage is expected to break all records this time. Even with four of the seven phases over, the polling rate (67 percent) has come close to the total of 2014 (67.6 per cent).
At this rate, it is estimated that by the time voting is over on 19 May, out of the 90 crore voters, the majority will have exercised their franchise. And that is seen as a success of the Election Commission's awareness endeavours too. As the overseer of the world's largest democratic exercise, Election Commission has every reason to feel proud. All the same, doubts have been raised whether the unprecedented challenges and the scale of issues it had to face, has damaged the efficiency and impartiality of the Commission.
Providing the opportunity to vote for every citizen is of prime importance. However, due to practical hurdles that does not usually happen in full. Non-resident Indians are mostly excluded from this key function of democracy. And there are also complaints that a large number of common people, including those of Assam and Bihar, are out of the voters' list. Assam is a state where 80 per cent polling was recorded this time. However, natives say that nearly 1.25 lakh voters were denied votes, being listed under a category of 'doubtful voters'. The reason is not that they are not citizens, but they cannot prove their citizenship; they are people who had been voting until the elections of 1996. Although they are actualy citizens, they were kept away because they could not produce the prescribed documents within the stipulated time. With the additional hurdle of National Citizenship Register, an estimated 40 lakh eople were excluded from the list. The criticism in this connection is that Election Commission should have made an intervention to ensure that genuine citizens were afforded the right to vote. There are also reports that in Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhandh and Delhi, lakhs of voters had lost their right to vote.
Two researchers who have been studying this aspect have gathered the statistics of 2.80 crore women whose names disappeared from the voters' list. Those behind the 'Missing voters' project allege that 12 crore people whose names should have been in the voters' list, were missing in the list. There are many who found a place in the list only thanks to the repeated attempt of the Commission. But it should also taken pro-active s teps for justice when governments try to make large-scale exclusions.
Another issue is the excesses in the campaigns. The basis of campaigns should reasonably be the election manifestoes released by political parties. But currently manifestoes mostly have come to mean a meaningless ritual. Many, starting with the prime minister, made attempts to divert the focus from popular topics to emotional frenzy. The Election Commission may have its own practical constraints in playing the role of a moderator in the debates. But when vioilations of model code of conduct were happening from even the highest leaders continuously, the Commission was by and large sitting as a helpless spectator. Its decisions, or lack of them, were alleged to be of a kind to give an unfair upper hand to the ruling side. On the occasions such as when the prime minister's national telecast about the launch of the satellite-busting missile test, NaMo TV and the Modi movie affected the equality of opportunity for contest, the Commission should have stepped in to ensure a level playing field. There was even the shocker of the prime minister seeking vote in the name of the military. Not only that it could not stop the clearly communal propaganda, the penal actions were even so light as to embolden those who made it to repeat it. As for the tax raids conducted by the Central government's agencies on several Opposition leaders, reports are that they were not with the prior knowledge of the Commission. Here again what the Commission chose to do most of the time was to sit quiet.
Doubts about the voting machines have seriously hurt the credibility of the elections. Mere declarations that hacking them is impossible, cannot allay apprehensions. Given the advances in the area of software being made every minute, nobody can say for certin that electronic machines can never be hacked. The developments in the discipline are such that even if it has not been possible to date, that does not mean it cannot be done tomorrow. Suspicions have been there right from the beginning. And when the Opposition, made an alternative proposal for larger percentage of VVPAT counting, it was not proper that the Commission raised objections to the suggestion.
Election Commission may have its own rational explanations for many of these. But the Commission should not only act fair, but also should be seen to be acting fair. That has not happened. Instead, the Commission has projected itself as an institution that leaves much to be desired in terms of efficiency and impartiality. Public debates and correction actions are imperative in this respect.