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June 2019 Edition of Power Politics is updated.    Wishing You All a Happy New Year.       June 2019 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:June' 2019

MOCKERY OF DEMOCRACY

For nirvana to Nirvachan Sadan

Malladi Rama Rao

The curtain has come down on General Election 2019. With all their focus on government formation, the political parties should be out of the campaign mode. But they are not.

With assembly elections due in several states, the parties are gearing up for a new gamble at the ballot box in Haryana (Oct 2019), Maharashtra (Nov 2019), and Delhi (Feb 2020).Elections are a festival of democracy with money pouring into the coffers of the lead players, according to some pundits.

There is no free lunch; a quid pro quo guides party donations whether in kind or through electoral bonds. Put simply, Indian political leaders begin their march to become lawmakers with a practice that makes them tainted, and marked. In the mad scramble for electoral funds, no party bothers to up the ante. Some proforma noises are heard, though.

Robbing the spirit

The Election Commission deserves to be blamed for making political parties tap the money bags. The three –member body has robbed the polls of its carnival spirit. It has reduced elections to a bureaucratic exercise. And made balloting multi-phased despite the presence of EVMs and VVPATs, which are designed to facilitate voting without hassles.

SL Shakdhar Even in the days of good old ballot box with all the attendant risks, SL Shakdhar (Chief Election Commissioner, 1977– 82) advocated one-day poll for the Lok Sabha. ‘This is the only way to minimize malpractices’, he used to say and succeeded in his mission to an extent. His successors, who have come from the holy tribe of retired IAS babus, have however rolled back the plan; they have ignored the advances India has made in terms of mobility and in respect of law and order.

Subramanian Swamy Dr.Subramanian Swamy, as the law minister in the short-lived Chandrasekhar government, heralded the Seshan saga at the Nirvachan Sadan in December 1990. “You need a seasoned IAS at the helm. Only IAS can coordinate fellow IAS through the length and breadth of the country,” he told me in an interview. He had brought retired Cabinet Secretary T N Seshan to the Nirvachan Sadan and shunted out the incumbent V Rama Devi from the Law Ministry.

T N Seshan P V Narasimha Rao Swamy’s reference is to the fact that election management at the district level is a task of the District Magistrates (known also as Collectors and Deputy Commissioners), who are IAS officers. Seshan became a darling of the middle classes searching for an icon. His tantrums gave him a protective ring. So much so, to cap Seshanism, the P V Narasimha Rao government turned the Election Commission into a body of threewise men, and gave them the status of a Supreme Court Judge.

This quick recap of bureaucratization of poll body is primarily to point out how the babu has made people not to pay more than passing attention to election process. Elections over seven phases spread over several weeks (as was the case in 2019) is atrociously absurd.

The Nirvachan Sadan thinks that ramps and water facility are what an election is for. It forgets that it is there to conduct a free, fair and transparent election. And not for frills at polling booths. Any Good Samaritan can chip in with such services without fuss.

But the Indian poll body loves the exercise. Even African nations have moved out of multi-phase fixation to a one-day ballot. But for India, which tom-toms its Chandrayaan mission by an indigenous Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle to land a rover near the lunar South Pole, one day poll is still an anathema.

The Nirvachan Sadan thinks that ramps and water facility are what an election is for. It forgets that it is there to conduct a free, fair and transparent election. And not for frills at polling booths. Any Good Samaritan can chip in with such services without fuss.

The 14th Lok Sabha election was held in 2004 in four phases.Voting took place between 20 April and 10 May (141 constituencies on 20th April, 137 constituencies on 26th April, 83 constituencies on 5th May and 182 constituencies on 10th May). The 15h general election in 2009 that gave a second term to Congress led UPA, became a five –phase affair with ballot on 16th, 22nd and 30th April, and4th and13th May 2009.

Five years later as Manmohan Singh bid good-bye to 7RCR in Lyuten’s Delhi 2014, India saw the longest ever general election running in nine phases from 7 April to 12 May 2014; it lasted 36 days and saw the highest ever turnout of around 66.40%.

Mercifully in the tryst with 2019 ballot, voting was reduced by two phases. The seven phases were spread over two months. In fact the election became a three month long affair since the poll schedule was announced on 10 March and the last ballot took place on 19 May. In three states - Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the election was held in all seven phases. Anantnag in the state of Jammu and Kashmir voted in three phases – a first of its kind with poll body worried about militancy.

Excuses

Law and order issues are routinely cited for phased polling. The EC itself classifies only some booths as sensitive. It means all polling booths are not prone to trouble and do not need heavy deployment. Moreover, there has been an exponential increase in the strength of police, reserved police and para-military personnel. Neither deployment nor movement is a job of hiccups in these days of better road, rail and air connectivity. Smartphones, CCTVs and videography have made voting a live TV show as noticed in 2019.

What is the message? It is time for the IAS at the helm of Nirvachan Sadan.

Mockery

The poll babus’ fixation with ‘More Phases’ has made a mockery of the model code of conduct (MCC) and the ceiling on expenditure by parties and candidates. Political parties are said to have spent Rs. Rs 70,000 croreplus on electioneering. A large chunk of this money went for ‘roadshows’ and helicopter hopping for the star campaigners. Moreover gone are the days when locals chipped in with their help. Today the cadre needs to be looked after well. ‘Actuals’ are more than the cap per constituency per candidate. So it is again a case of half-truth by candidates and parties.

The EC has a host of observers in the field. Some of them are exclusively to keep tabs on expenditure and therefore called ‘Expenditure Observers’. The ‘returns’ filed with the EC after the election poke fun at these worthies whose perks and allowances are a big drain on the exchequer.

Impunity

Pragya Thakur and Digvijaya Singh In Election 2019, like in all earlier elections, the Model Code of Conduct, MCC was abused with impunity by everyone from PM Narendra Modi to a host others, Pragya Thakur and Digvijaya Singh including. The complaints the EC received and its actions and inactions highlight the crying need to make the Code to shine better. Certain provisions of the MCC can be enforced by invoking Indian Penal Code (IPC), Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and Representation of the People Act (RP Act). This is seldom done.

Amit Shah and Rahul Gandhi During the latest electoral round, notices for breaching MCC were issued to several leaders, including BJP chief Amit Shah, Congress President Rahul Gandhi. If so what. Indian politicians are a class apart. Neither politicians nor parties take the EC notice seriously. Admonitions, and warnings and censures are no more than homilies off a Voluntary code that has been in force since the 1962 election. And the EC remains a mute spectator if the Netas refuse to pay heed to its slap on the wrist.

S Y Quraishi Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi disagrees with this prognosis. He firmly believes that the MCC carries significant moral weight; and hails it as the Moral Code of Conduct. His contention is that most politicians do not relish the prospect of a censure or a reprimand by Nirvachan Sadan and thus gift a talking point to their political rivals.
He may be right but the 2019 poll season shows electioneering degenerate into jibes, and mudslinging after a certain threshold is crossed. This can be checked only if the EC becomes the real policeman. But the poll body is not ready for a binding MCC saying that its main focus is holding elections within a relatively short time (close to 45 days). It is content with the reality check that the voter doesn’t forget or forgive a politician who tries to take on the poll regulator or attempts to brazen it out.

Seizure of cash, drugs/narcotics, golds and other valuables crossed the figures of 2014 Lok Sabha election

Long before the sevenphase parliamentary polls began in April, the Election Commission had seized Rs 1400 crore of unaccounted cash. It is more than the declared expenditure incurred by political parties in the Election 2014.Hundreds of bottles of liquor meant for distribution among the voters was also seized in some states. Free liquor to a poor addict is a big boon at election time. Certainly. Ditto with black money too!

Way out

What is the way out? Elections in two or three phases, if not one-day poll offers the best course. This is the message from General Election 2019 for nirvana to the Nirvachan Sadan, and to reduce money power over the ballot! Otherwise, EC will continue to become a political football and electioneering a high pitched vocal bout in slander and hate.

A related question is about frequent elections as pointed out at the outset. It is a pity that Narendra Modi, despite his best efforts, failed to have the entire country vote simultaneously for both the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls every five years. Frequent elections means more money flow….much of it flowing into the pockets of the poor.

Long before the seven-phase parliamentary polls began in April, the Election Commission had seized Rs 1400 crore of unaccounted cash. It is more than the declared expenditure incurred by political parties in the Election 2014.Hundreds of bottles of liquor meant for distribution among the voters was also seized in some states. Free liquor to a poor addict is a big boon at election time. Certainly. Ditto with black money too!

Thanks to the ‘electoral bonds’, it is now possible for ‘shell companies’ to divert ‘black money’ they allegedly attract, for a noble cause—elections. Between March and April, over Rs 3000 crore worth of ‘electoral bonds’ were sold. How impressive!

Till May 12, the poll body seized Rs 3300 crore - Rs 935 in Tamil Nadu alone. All this cash represented a small percentage of the actual amount available to political parties to keep the ‘flag of democracy’ flying in the land of 1.3 billion people, more than half of whom still stuck in poverty.

And the estimate is that political parties have spent more than Rs 70,000 crore in the 2019 election, most of it by BJP.

My friend and political commentator Atul Cowshish has an interesting take on money in elections. In his considered view, the money had two destinations – one the poor ordinary folks and the other who are already flush with money.

Some money would have gone to media houses too for carrying ‘advertorials’ but don’t the media houses, most of whom perennially talking of cash crunch, have to pay salaries to their staff? ‘Paid news’ has come to be accepted as a fact free of any violation of moral and ethical code but the money has to reach the media house from somewhere.

Most of the ‘donation’ money could have found its way into the wallets of ordinary people for performing tasks that range from printing pamphlets, hiring crowds for processions and rallies to make them impressive, arranging transport and boarding for the hired crowd, payments to ad and PR agencies, cost of advertising in the media and so on.

Put differently, the ordinary people are perhaps the more direct beneficiaries than the political parties since the bulk of the donations by the companies go into their pockets. It is truest form of Nyay!

Makeover…?

Since 2004, it has become the refrain of a losing party to blame the EVMs for their debacle. The Bharatiya Janata Party under the leadership of Loh Purush, L K Advani had set the tone for the debate once the electorate saw no shine in India. 2009 election resulted in another BJP rout. And it led to the publication of a book with the title “Democracy at Risk! Can we trust our electronic voting machines? A BJP stalwart even moved the court against the EVMs.

The Congress-led Opposition in the 2019 election did one-up on the BJP. In the run up to the ballot itself, it raised doubts about the reliability of the EVMs. And insisted on 100 per cent VVPATs and tallying EVM vote count with VVPAT count. It did not have its way either at the Supreme Court or the Nirvachan Sadan.

Now the Maratha strong man,Sharad Pawar, who too has been decimated by Modi Tsunami, is leading the new chorus – ‘EVMs are not at fault’. Well, he has to. His party (NCP) men are saying openly that his flipflops have cost them many seats even in their traditional sugar belt of Maharashtra.

Nonetheless, the Nirvachan Sadan will do well to give a makeover to the EVMs, which are still based on the design cleared during Seshan era. Involvement of political parties (IT Cells) in the exercise will allay popular misgivings

Divided House

In 2019 polls, the Nirvachan Sadan made headlines regularly with its decisions that did not go down well with the Opposition parties. Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa (a superannuated IAS officer of Haryana cadre) differed with fellow EC Sushil Chandra and CEC Sunil Arora on clean chits to Narendra Modi and Amit Shah over MCC violations.Differences in EC are not new.

In fact, the Narasimha Rao government hoped to use these differences to tame the irrepressible TN Seshan, even after he challenged in the Supreme Court the appointment of GVG Krishna Murthy and M S Gill as Election Commissioners. GVG and Gill also had their share of differences that had spilled into public domain. N. Gopalaswami (CEC 2006 -2009) had a fall-out with EC Navin Chawla, and recommended his sacking from the poll body.

Ashok Lavasa is, therefore, in illustrious company with the gaze firmly fixed on the galleries. His case is that his dissent should be recorded in the final orders on the MCC issues. But such decisions are not quasijudicial, and as such dissent must remain in files.These files are accessible to public under RTI Act, and therefore lack of transparency does not arise, according to poll body veterans.

T S Krishnamurthy, a former CEC, has an interesting take. “When the Supreme Court gives a 2-1 order, you don't level charges of bias because of one minority verdict, similarly don't use the bias word because the EC has decided 2-1, it is perfectly valid,” he says.