Speaking generally, the Election Commission of India has really got its job cut out. The sheer numbers it has to handle boggle the mind - a 900-million-strong electorate in 2019, up from 830 million, of which 550 million had cast their votes in 2014. Enough to demand coverage on just about every prominent international media platform. The first phase itself saw action in 91 Lok Sabha constituencies, across 20 states and UTs as far-flung as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, where polling personnel have to be sturdy trekkers.
No motorable roads means a 20-25 km walk per day, hauling EVM machines on the back. Well, democracy can be hard work too! Physical labour, however, is the least of the Commission’s problems. There are life risks too, like in strife-torn Bastar and Dantewada. Violent clashes were witnessed in 175 constituencies in Andhra Pradesh! That was largely due to EVM malfunctioning. Ditto in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, where a voter in a minority-dominated seat found his votes were going to the rival camp!
So forget inhospitable terrain and such like. When the very reliability of the machine on which the sacred act of democracy is performed appears (or is perceived to have become) compromised, what the EC battles is something far more profound: a credibility crisis. And that injures all of India.The initial steps towards introducing the electronic voting machine were taken by the independent-minded R V S Peri Sastri in 1989 - the same man who, as CEC, reduced the voting age to 18. The EVM infused Indian elections with a kind of technological prowess that even Western democracies did not have. It certainly rendered old-style rigging - thugs capturing booths and stuffing ballot papers into the box - a thing of the past. Things have, unfortunately, come a full circle.
The infallibility of an EVM, despite protestations to the contrary, is no longer taken as automatically granted by the common Indian voter. And when voters raise doubts about EVMs, it’s not the same as a losing side’s churlish complaints. Not merely a slugfest between political opponents. It’s a no-confidence vote cast by a common Indian on the Election Commission, which is mandated to be a neutral ‘custodian of free and fair elections’ (the motto written in bold at Nirvachan Sadan).
The EC, obviously, has come a long way since Peri Sastri, V S Ramadevi (the first woman CEC) and her voluble successor T N Seshan (who was often called ‘Al Seshan’ behind his back). Perception, indeed, is vital. Be it EVMs or the voting age, it was Peri Sastri who inaugurated big electoral reforms, but it’s Seshan who is seen to be the transformational man.
Look again at the record, it’s an interesting one. Peri Sastri, not adequately famously, had run-ins with the then PM Rajiv Gandhi - this phase is recounted in then CAG C G Somiah’s book The Honest Always Stand Alone. The EC got expanded to a three-member panel as a consequence of that rift. S S Dhanoa, appointed by Rajiv Gandhi as one of the two ECs, later wrote about Peri Sastri’s surprise at his appointment which happened without his knowledge.
Also about a sharp altercation between then principal secretary B G Deshmukh and the CEC, at the latter’s office, regarding the 1989 elections. Rajiv Gandhi had pre-empted the EC in announcing November 22 as the date, creating a constitutional crisis of sorts. (Not that it helped.)So, governments having run-ins with the EC is nothing new. In fact, the EC came into its own as an institution to reckon with through these turf wars. What has changed now is that the EC seems to be having its tug-of-war with the voting public rather than the political establishment.
If newspaper editorials are anything to go by, there was a collective sigh of relief when the EC finally rose up to act by banning the release (in the midst of elections, that is) of hagiographic biopics of political leaders, past and present, including that of a powerful Prime Minister Modi, and cracking down on a newly-minted channel called NaMo TV. It was seen more as life support for the EC as an institution, whose credibility is a long-term investment for India. Such was the disaffection with its current workings that Seshan was remembered and re-evaluated all over again.
Seshan, undoubtedly, shook the dust off the EC rulebook with vehemence and started implementing it with the force of his personality and that quip: “I have the power”. He was, of course, the only CEC to have taken to mass-countermanding of elections, five at a go in UP and Bihar - including the suave foreign minister (later PM) I K Gujral’s Patna polls against Yashwant Sinha - citing large-scale rigging. Seshan did have a thing against Lalu Prasad Yadav and Bihar’s law and order under him. But elections had been countermanded before him, in 1977 and 1982, in two constituencies of undivided UP. In Tamil Nadu too.
But the trope of the CEC as a ‘hero’ fighting the system that began with Seshan has died. It’s been replaced by a poll panel headed by a faceless (or ‘worse’-less) official. The clouds of doubt around the EVM, which led to the machine being supplemented by VVPATs and a verifiable paper trail, or the suspicion that current voting schedules favour the ruling dispensation, has taken the shine out of the EC.
Not that it has an easy job.
The polar extremes are, well, extreme. If a Kanhaiya Kumar is working the crowds in Begusarai chanting azadi with drumbeats, next door a CM routinely drums up religious passions. Yogi Adityanath is pitching himself unabashedly as a devotee of Bajrangbali and his opponents as that of Ali. Not far away, Mayawati is appealing directly to Muslims to not vote Congress. To top it all, the PM is routinely invoking the armed forces to ask for votes. Not to mention the I-T raiders running selectively amok. What the EC’s actions concede is that democracy, at its very least, still needs to be a vertebrate animal.