The Biased Referee

Why the Election Commission’s neutrality is in doubt

The Election Commission’s actions during some of the recent elections, such as the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the 2020 Bihar assembly polls, have been widely questioned. Parwaz Khan / Hindustan Times
31 March, 2021

 On 12 March, the Election Commission announced an unprecedented eight-phase polling schedule for West Bengal’s 294 assembly seats and a three-phase one for 126 seats in Assam. The way the phases have been marked out has drawn attention, especially since Bihar’s elections, in 243 seats last year, were divided into just three phases, and polling in Tamil Nadu (234 seats), Kerala (140 seats) and Puducherry (30 seats) would all be over in one day, on 6 April. The EC says the prolonged schedule in West Bengal would help make available adequate security forces in all the areas. But concerns are being raised that the scheduling will load the dice in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Since the BJP has fewer workers on the ground in West Bengal, dividing the polls into eight phases would allow the party to focus more intensively on smaller regions at a time. Upper Assam, where the BJP is expected to perform well, went to the polls first. But this was also where the party is on the defensive about the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, which was met with massive protests on the ground last year. The scheduling allowed the BJP to not speak of the CAA at all in the beginning of the campaign. However, once polling finished in Upper Assam, the BJP began claiming credit for the CAA to woo the politically significant Matua community, which has been demanding implementation of the act. 

The commission also recently changed a rule that required a booth’s polling agent to be picked from among voters of that booth. According to the new rule, a polling agent can be from any part of the constituency. The Trinamool Congress recently put out a phone conversation, allegedly between the BJP leader Mukul Roy and his colleague Shishir Bajoria, in which Roy urges Bajoria to get the EC to change the rule, failing which the party would not have adequate polling agents in the state. The Trinamool Congress has alleged the EC changed the rule at the BJP’s request, without wider consultation with other parties.

Such partisan behaviour is now routinely on display. The EC’s current lack of independence is made more conspicuous by its historical perception as an independent institution. The EC’s actions during some of the recent elections, such as the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the 2020 Bihar assembly polls, have been widely questioned. The blatant harassment of one of the election commissioners, Ashok Lavasa, whom the government had not found pliable enough, has also indicated the extent of the government’s interference. The behaviour has been noticed globally as well, as India’s ranking on several global democratic indices has plummeted. When questions are raised about the electoral process, they are often about electronic voting machines or electoral bonds. While these issues are central to the electoral process, sustained attention also needs to be paid to the activities of the EC, whose role is to ensure a free and fair electoral process.