BY any standard, it ranks as a landmark in the recent travails of India’s democracy. The long open letter to the three election commissioners of India, authored by 64 retired senior diplomats and civil servants, also carried endorsements by senior veterans of the armed forces, academics and concerned citizens. Three other features add to its uniqueness. One is the letter’s subject. It concerns the independence and probity of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the fairness of the last general election. The other is its able, exhaustive marshalling of facts and cogency of reasoning. The last is the rarity of such protests in the present Modi era in which persecution of dissent is rife.
The signatories point out: “The 2019 general elections appear to have been one of the least free and fair elections that the country has had in the past three decades or so. In the past, despite the efforts of criminal elements, musclemen and unscrupulous politicians, the persons who graced the ECI did their best to ensure that elections were conducted as freely and fairly as possible. In these general elections, however, an impression has gathered ground that our democratic process is being subverted and undermined by the very constitutional authority empowered to safeguard its sanctity. It was rare in the past for any serious doubts to be raised about the impartiality, integrity and competence of the ECI. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the present ECI and the way it has conducted the general elections of 2019. So blatant have been the acts of omission and commission by the ECI that even former election commissioners and CECs have been compelled, albeit reluctantly, to question the decisions of their successors in office.”
There was reasonable doubt the ECI deliberately delayed the announcement to enable Prime Minister Narendra Modi to complete the inauguration blitz of a slew of projects (157 of them) that he had scheduled.
Persecution of dissent is rife in the Modi era.
The media reported large-scale voter exclusion, with some accounts suggesting that voters from certain minority groups were the most affected. “It was incumbent upon the ECI to investigate them and respond promptly. Many voters who had exercised their mandates in earlier elections found their names missing. The ECI’s failure to effectively answer these allegations further tarnished its reputation.”
The Model Code of Conduct was flouted with impunity. PM Modi freely exploited the army’s recent operations in Kashmir for electoral gains, without earning a rebuke from the ECI.
Consider this one charge alone. “The bias of the ECI was glaringly apparent in the case relating to Mr Mohammed Mohsin, the IAS officer who was sent to Odisha as a special election observer. Mr Mohsin was suspended for checking the PM’s helicopter for any non-permissible cargo. According to the ECI, the official had not acted in conformity with the ECI’s instructions of not checking SPG protected persons. Constitutional obligations were trumped by administrative instructions.”
The Niti Aayog, successor to the Planning Commission, wrote to all and sundry for information on the districts Modi was to cover in his election campaigns. This blatantly illegal misuse of official machinery, for which Indira Gandhi’s election was declared void in 1975, is conveniently overlooked.
The signatories rightly remarked that the ECI used to be the envy of the world for its ability to conduct free and fair elections despite the huge logistical challenges and the hundreds of millions of voters. “It is indeed saddening to witness the process of the demise of that legacy. If it continues, it is bound to strike at the very heart of that founding document the people of India proudly gave themselves — the constitution of India — and the democratic ethos that is the very basis of the Indian republic. Viewed in totality, there is no doubt that the mandate of 2019 has been thrown into serious doubt.”
Bar NDTV, the electronic media is repulsive in its chauvinism and submissiveness. Only two English dailies dare consistently to speak truth to power. The atmosphere was well captured by The Economist’s aptly-titled report ‘Fawning frenzy’. Its subtitle was ‘When India’s government abuses power, the media don’t roll over. They cheer’. It said: “Today, far from crawling, India’s press and television channels are jumping up and down and cheering. Talking heads vie to outdo one another in celebration.
“In truth, the press’s current sycophancy rises from a hinterland of intimidation, trimming and currying favour dating back to Mr Modi’s rise to national power in 2014. Government ads are pulled in retaliation against newspapers that have been critical of the BJP, such as The Hindu and The Telegraph. Meanwhile, businessmen are shyer of voicing criticism in public.”
In such an atmosphere, no praise can be too high for the signatories of that letter. One hopes it will encourage similar protests in the trying days that lie ahead.
The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.
Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2019