Last week saw massive protests in Aizawl, located in the North Eastern state of Mizoram, for the removal of the Chief Electoral Officer, SB Shashank. The removal that came through on 10 November, was demanded by the state government, the Congress Party, and civil rights groups. The Mizoram incident, however, is not an exception. It follows a long line of questionable behaviour by the Election Commission over the last year.
Trouble in Mizoram
The Election Commission has been at loggerheads with the State Government regarding the voting procedures for the Bru community. The community primarily resides in refugee camps in North Tripura and has traditionally been allowed to vote in polling stations installed at these camps. However, this is set to change as the state government has demanded that the community cast their vote in Mizoram, saying that adequate transportation and safety measures will be installed for their travel and voting. The matter escalated when the Election Commission removed Principal Secretary Lalnunmawia Chuaungo following a letter from the Mizoram CEO citing interference in the electoral process. The move was met with immense criticism and demands for the removal of SB Shashank. Congress also opposed the transfer calling it “politically motivated” given that the Bru community has historically been seen as sympathetic to the BJP.
A look at the increasing partisanship of EC
In October 2017, the Election Commission came under fire for delaying the announcement of the dates of Gujarat elections without any substantial reason provided for the same. While the Centre vehemently denied any involvement in the matter, the 22 day delay allowed the ruling state government to roll out multiple new schemes and projects in the state. The controversy around election dates, however, is not an isolated incident.
It was expected that dates for the by-elections in Tamil Nadu would also be announced when the election dates for five states (Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh) were announced by the Commission in October this year. The political situation in Tamil Nadu has remained volatile ever since the death of CM Jayalalitha, and the constituencies of Thiruparankundram and Tiruvarur have remained vacant since August. The EC referred to the heavy rains predicted over the next three months as the reason for not announcing the dates. The delay also gives the incumbent AIADMK government time to organise itself in Thiruparankundram which has traditionally remained a stronghold for them.
At the time of the announcement, a fractured AIADMK had been dealing with a lawsuit against 18 MLAs from rebel leader TTV Dhinakaran’s camp, which eventually fell in AIADMK’s favour. The 18 lawmakers, who are loyal to ousted party leader VK Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, will no longer be members and by-elections will be held for their seats. With the by-elections being held in 20 seats as opposed to the aforementioned two seats the bypolls will now have the status of a mini election. The move to not announce dates, which is largely viewed as a departure from practice, raised eyebrows given it comes in the backdrop of multiple meetings of high level officials from BJP and AIADMK. Furthermore, the delay in election dates now opens up the possibility of the bypolls being held simultaneously with the 2019 general elections, which can greatly sway the outcome.
The commission again came under fire in March amidst allegations of an alleged leak of the 2018 Karnataka Assembly Election dates. The issue came to light when Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP IT cell and B. Srivastava, the social media incharge of Congress in Karnataka, posted the dates on their social media accounts, fifteen minutes before the official announcement by the Election Commission. Both the parties claimed to have sourced the dates from a newsbreak put out by news channel Times Now before the official announcement. A committee set by the Election Commission to look into the matter later declared that the dates had never been leaked and it was only a matter of speculation by Times Now, who had got the polling date correct but the results date wrong.
Discrepancies in the announcement of election dates are not the only thing the EC has come under scrutiny for. In January 2018 the President, on the recommendation of the Commission, disqualified 20 AAP MLAs on grounds of “holding an office of profit” as chairpersons of patient welfare committees affiliated with various city hospitals. The verdict was later reversed by the Delhi High Court, which also criticized the EC for not providing a platform for an oral hearing of the issue and called the dismissal a “violation of natural justice”. AAP also vehemently criticized the rash actions taken by the EC and accused them of acting with political motives.
A continued indifference towards dealing with these cases compromises the elections in question. A look back at the last one year itself shows that the Election Commission’s slip ups are neither isolated nor innocuous. The independence and integrity of the Election Commission remain the pillars on which fair and just elections rest, and to compromise on those is a compromise on democracy itself.
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About the Author
Poojil Tiwari is pursuing Bachelors in English Literature from Miranda House, University of Delhi. Like most English students, Poojil has an affinity for reading. She is an avid debater, placing a lot of value in the ability to question and have constructive discussions. She is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, and regard dancing to be her true passion. Poojil has a keen interest in Gender and Cultural Studies and has worked with organizations such as Delhi Commission for Women and Teach for India.