Since the time of T N Seshan, the Election Commission has never ceased to make headlines but rarely ever was it in the news for the wrong reasons. Over the years, if one unqualifiedly positive element has been present as a bright spot amid the murk and skullduggery of Indian elections, it’s the EC’s essential non-partisan aura—how it steered free and fair elections through a variety of challenging contexts. Election commissioners even acquired a kind of stardom because they stood out for their virtuous vigil in a system mired in corruption and power play. It’s because of their unwavering insistence on sticking by the rules that they acquired their ability to inspire awe and put powerful politicians in their place.
Constitutional authorities derive their legitimacy from being able to stand above ordinary politics, of being able to govern without fear or favour. Against this context, the dilly-dallying from the EC on announcing the crucial polling dates in Gujarat is a clear cause for dismay—more so because of the lack of any clear, universally applied rationale.
Citing the exigencies of flood relief does not entirely wash in a field as fraught as Gujarat, whose trajectory is seen to have a meaning and influence beyond its immediate setting—especially because the much higher scale of flood relief that was required in Jammu and Kashmir did not seem to warrant a similar delay in that troubled state.
In fact, the elections it conducted in those difficult circumstances could not be faulted for institutional propriety—despite the political strife in the Valley. It’s this hard-earned reputation that the EC risks forfeiting as India moves towards a series of crucial elections in the run-up to 2019. The loss will not merely be the EC’s—the credibility of Indian politics, and all parties that participate in it, will acquire more lustre if electoral contests are free and fair. If the Model Code of Conduct requires refinement, so that no party has any reason to grouse and the flow of governance is unimpeded, it’s better to examine that at a more fortuitous time.