In these highly-charged elections, will the Election Commission be able to fulfil its role of a poll watchdog to the hilt and strap on those vitiating the atmosphere?
The EC is already bombarded with complaints by political parties and leaders against each other. In the age of social media, these complaints of alleged violation of election rules or the model code of conduct have grown exponentially.
Since the code of conduct came into place on March 10, the EC has received more than 40,000 references and complaints on its mobile app, but unofficial figures put it at roughly a million.
Among the top complaints the EC has received are a dedicated television for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a speech by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, associating the armed forces with Modi by calling them “Modi’s soldiers “, and a speech by BSP leader Mayawati, seeking the support of Muslim voters.
Now another complaint against Modi has hit the headlines. The Opposition is furious that Modi is seeking votes in memory of Pulwama martyrs. In an out-reach to first-time voters, Modi at a rally in Maharashtra asked the youth to dedicate their votes for the Balakot strike, for the Pulwama attack victims.
The Congress has accused the EC of bias towards Modi. “Everybody knows why the PM is doing this. It is unfortunate that the EC is not taking any action,” says Congress leader Kapil Sibal. The Commission has taken cognisance of Prime Minister’s remarks and has asked the Maharashtra chief election commissioner to submit a report “at the earliest”.
The commission also had to censure the UP chief minister for his statement for calling the armed forces Modi’s Sena in the wake of the air strikes on terrorists camps in Balakot in Pakistan, after the Opposition said it was a violation of the model code. The Commission is also examining a representation against the planned release of a biopic titled “PM Narendra Modi”. The film has become politically contentious as the Opposition has objected to its release during electioneering on the ground that it disturbs the level-playing field for candidates in the Lok Sabha polls.
The Commission had written to the Censor Board, asking whether it had certified the film. Now with the Board giving it a go ahead, it’s up to the EC to decide on its release, and then the real picture will start. The Opposition will cry foul if the film hits the theatres as scheduled, and will accuse the Commission of unduly favouring the BJP government and the Prime Minister.
The Commission is already facing the Opposition ire for giving Modi what is being said an unfair advantage in the election.
The Congress says the model code has become a joke because the recently launched NaMO TV that carries Modi’s rallies live and runs other promotional material for the ruling BJP is still on air despite several complaints against it. The Commission is yet to take a decision on the issue. It has asked the Delhi chief electoral officer whether the content aired on NaMo TV is pre-certified by the media certification and monitoring committee as is mandatory for all political advertisements before they are aired. The BJP will also have to mention the expenses on NaMo TV in its election expenditure statement before the EC.
Already Modi has been criticised by the Opposition for announcing a successful test of anti-satellite weapon, but the Election Commission has ruled that the PM’s speech has not violated the election code. The BJP government at the Centre has also been accused of violating the model code by sending central agencies to raid the premises of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal nath’s aides. The Commission has asked the Revenue Secretary and the CBDT Chairman to inform the state chief electoral officer and the authorities concerned of raids and searches relating to corruption as soon as they get underway.
But it is not as if all the complaints are against the BJP and Modi. Mayawati has also be accused of violating the model code, seeking votes in the name of religion.
At a rally in Uttar Pradesh’s Deoband, a stronghold of the Muslims, Mayawati had asked the Muslim voters not to waste their vote on the Congress.
“The Congress is not in this fight. We are fighting the BJP, and we will win,” she had said.
The Prime Minister has himself spoken, saying that she is appealing to Muslims to specifically vote for her and that it is a matter for the Election Commission to look into it.
But this is just the beginning. Seeking votes in the name of religion is not new. More such statements are likely to be made in the next 5-6 weeks. It is for the Election Commission to deal with them expeditiously for free and fair elections. The task before the Commission is stupendous with so many complaints in the times of ever expanding social media. It has to preserve its image as an impartial institution.
Will it succeed?
Yashwardhan Joshi is a Journalist of long standing and commentator on issues of Administration and Social Issues.