Funding, the Election Commission, the Media—our electoral institutional framework needs scrutiny

Supporters of the Bhartiya Janata Party in Allahabad gather to watch a rally by Amit Shah, the home minister, in February 2022. The Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections saw one of the most polarising campaigns run by a ruling party in a large and sensitive state. SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
26 March, 2022

“Cricket owes much of its appeal and enjoyment to the fact that it should be played not only according to the Laws, but also within the Spirit of Cricket. The major responsibility for ensuring fair play rests with the captains, but extends to all players, match officials…”—that is what the Marylebone Cricket Club’s preamble to the laws of cricket, defining the spirit of the game starts with. All games are premised on the “spirit” of “fair” contests. Elections in India and the fact of representing its 1.4 billion people is no game, but it shares some fundamental principles with sport—the rules must be the same and the field even for all who seek to run. There is no honest contest if the rules are distorted, the pitch dug up or the odds rigged.

 All discussion on the results of the five assembly polls this month has been about voter behaviour and what those vying to represent them said or did not in the campaign. But the operating system within which the will of the people is determined, the institutional rubric within which elections are held also merit scrutiny. The mechanics of the funding of elections, the role of the Election Commission and the media yield to some disappointing conclusions about how “fair” elections have been or how much they have embodied its true “spirit.”

 The quantum of money spent by competing parties and candidates is always a good starting point. Opaque electoral bonds, which conceal what kind of money is coming in, for whom and from where, continued to fuel this election, as the Supreme Court refuses to decide a case challenging the bonds on its merits. It has been hanging fire since 2017 but as there is no stay on the scheme, these secretive financial instruments continue to distort Indian democracy. Ahead of the recent polls, the government-owned State Bank of India sold electoral bonds worth Rs 1,213 crore, making this amount the highest so far in state elections, and second only to the Rs 3,622 crore bonds sold ahead of the general elections in 2019.

 How this skews the field is clear from analysis of the money that has come in. Lokesh K Batra, a Right-to-Information activist, gathered data from the SBI on the 19 tranches of bond sales so far. His analysis revealed that over ninety two percent of electoral bonds sold in the past four years were of the Rs 1 crore denomination. At least three-fourths of the amount sold in the financial year 2019-2020 has been revealed to have gone to the ruling BJP. In a scenario of severe economic losses for the average Indian, the Election Commission has made the playing field worse by raising the expenditure limits for candidates, that too just in time for these polls. The earlier expenditure allowed for assembly constituencies was Rs 20 lakh to Rs 28 lakh. It is now Rs 28 lakh to Rs 40 lakh, rendering it kosher to spend more and more. If any reform was needed from the Election Commission, it may have been one that thought through the danger that the rising expense of electoral contests pose to Indian democracy—the 2019 general election was recorded officially as the world’s most expensive election, beating even the US presidential election. Surely, for a large country like India, with so much poverty, that should ring alarm bells instead of enabling a case for more expenditure?

 It is also necessary to analyse the functioning of the Election Commission when scrutinising the institutional framework within which elections are held. In 2021, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute ranked India as an “electoral autocracy.” India’s ratings fell, in large part, due to a drop in the autonomy of the Election Management Body, in our case the Election Commission. The role of the Election Commission in 2019—its refusal to call out anything that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the home minister Amit Shah said is old hat. In an unprecedented move, in 2020, Ashok Lavasa, the only Election Commissioner who asserted himself in internal meetings, was sent packing to Manila’s Asian Development Bank, instead of being allowed to stay the course to take charge as the next Chief Election Commissioner. Things appear to have gone further south. The Chief Election Commissioner is now Satish Chandra, only the second time that a non-IAS officer has been called in for the top job. The person chosen to fill Lavasa’s place in June last year was Arup Chandra Pandey, by coincidence, the retired chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh till 2019, under the incumbent chief minister Adityanath. It was a neat coincidence that Uttar Pradesh was set to be going to polls just months after Pandey took charge.

 The Election Commission had let off Adityanath lightly in 2019, on complaints over his using the phrase “Modiji ki Sena,” or Modi’s army. He was told to “be more careful” and no action was taken. This time, Adityanath was far closer to his utterances as the founder of the Hindu Yuva Vahini. He was recorded making at least 100 instances of communally inflammatory speech and references, of which his comments on an “80 percent versus 20 percent” election and his “Abbajan” jibe are only the most prominent. An analysis by The Wire of 34 publicly available speeches over three months, between November 2020 and February 2021, revealed disturbing patterns, but this time, there was not even a rap to “be more careful.” A BJP MLA from Amethi called for tearing off the beards of Muslims. Another one said that any Hindu who does not vote for him has “Miya” blood. Both attracted anaemic responses from the Election Commission of silencing them for 24 hours. There was no acknowledgement, forget contrition, that this was one of the most polarising campaigns run by a ruling party in a large and sensitive state.

In June 2021, the Election Commission called for Aadhaar numbers to get linked with voter IDs. A bill to this effect made its way to Parliament and is now law. There has been no consideration of the fact that this could seriously endanger secret ballots and allow those with access to this data to target voters with messages based on their psychometric profiles. Aadhaar numbers linked to voter IDs would allow the targeted manipulation of the beneficiaries of benefits and subsidies, giving unfair access to those who have this data.

A third aspect of our electoral framework that merits a deeper look is the role of the media. A 2014 paper published as part of the National Election Studies conducted by the Lokniti Programme for Comparative Democracy—a research programme of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies—asked, “Does Media Exposure Affect Voting Behaviour and Political Preferences in India?” and concluded that it does. It found evidence that “in the 2014 elections, electorates with higher media exposure were more likely to vote for the BJP.” It added that “voters with higher media exposure were more likely to vote for the BJP in previous Lok Sabha elections as well, and, in that sense, the 2014 elections were no different.” Media exposure of the voting public has since increased manifold. More disturbingly, the BJP government exercises control over media, often indirectly but powerfully, through the distribution of advertisements. The Uttar Pradesh government spent  Rs 160.31 crore on advertisements on TV news channels between April 2020 and March 2021.

Just weeks before the model code of conduct became operational, jacket ads were carpet bombed on readers of Indian newspapers, with a strong message centred around Opposition targeting—the Samajwadi’s trademark red cap—as well as on a community, with clothing and language used to strongly identify Muslims as lawless and the opposition. These did not cause even a titter on Ashoka Road, where the EC is housed. When an embarrassing advertisement tried to pass off Kolkata’s Maa flyover as Uttar Pradesh infrastructure, the Indian Express jumped in and apologised, implying that the government was not to blame for picking the wrong image. TV debates, in addition to newspapers, did nothing to quiz, call out or just provide an honest appraisal of claims made by BJP’s state governments.

The respected American journalist Jay Rosen has spoken sharply against the “horse-race” style of covering politics, of “We just want to know who’s going to win.” He proposes the “citizen-style” agenda as the counter, where one begins with a very simple question: “What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? He says that if you ask this enough—“thousands of times, not dozens of times”— what emerges “is a kind of agenda coming not from the political players, but from the people you’re trying to inform.”

 At the end of the assembly polls, voters got none of the “citizen style” agenda from the guardians of the information sphere. Even the social media space—Facebook, Twitter—remains skewed in favour of the ruling party. It has been deployed effectively to spread misinformation and muddy the decorum of the contest. It is a dark moment for the voting citizen in India. Not only are candidates battling against each other, the voter is too, against a deeply uneven playing field making the information she receives, the referees and the rules all suspect. All this is doing nothing to help the cause of furthering India’s democracy.