The 2019 general elections, spread across seven phases over a period of 38 days are the longest in independent India. The 2014 elections were conducted in 9 phases over 34 days. The model code of conduct took effect on 10th March and will be in force till the election process is completed. For the States that voted in the first phase, it can be as long as two months.
During this period, the guidelines deter the party in power from misusing government machinery and resources for its own publicity and benefit, though the government is allowed to do some perfunctory functions as a caretaker till the newly-elected government takes over. So in effect, the incumbent becomes a lame duck government during this period.
Earlier, the election process period used to take a short duration of about a fortnight. But this time it is too long. The opposition parties allege that it is done to provide advantage to BJP’s star campaigners Narendra Modi and Amit Shah a long time to tour all over India and campaign. But the BJP says it is the prerogative of the Election Commission of India (ECI) to decide on the schedule and it was done for ensuring a free, fair and peaceful election. Moreover, the opposition also has the same advantage.
Whatever be the reasons, the elections are on and nearing completion. The parties, especially those opposed to the BJP, are on the tenterhooks smarting under the curtailed powers, as the officials are breathing down their necks in the name of model code.
Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, seems to be the most perturbed. In fact, he has been raising an outcry right since the announcement of the elections. He said the BJP deliberately foisted elections on AP in the first phase to help the YSR Congress Party and did not give him adequate time to prepare for the elections. He also raised the issue of EVMs, their vulnerability to hacking and also demanded 100% counting of VVPATS.
His relationship with the EC in Andhra Pradesh too was not good. There was a confrontation on the transfer of his intelligence chief and the coordination between the government and the EC was strained. The EC replaced his CS and transferred his intelligence chief and the CM went to court. But, as it should have been, the emergency powers of the CEC under Article 324 of the Constitution prevailed.
There is nothing wrong in political parties questioning the provisions and the working of the CEC. But it should be for an appropriate cause and in an appropriate manner. Moreover, political parties raising issues which cannot be addressed during the process of elections is not the right way to do it. It can be done before elections through proper forums.
For example, the EC held an EVM hackathon on June 3, 2017. The political parties, which were raising the issue did not attend it except the CPM and the NCP which agreed to participate. They expressed intent to participate in it but withdrew at the last moment. After that, now raising the issue in the middle of the election process is totally unwarranted.
The conduct of successful elections continuously in India, the largest democracy and with a very large electorate, has been considered a great feat. So to undermine the efficacy of the CEC with unfounded doubts is not the right thing to do. Moreover, the demand to revert to ballot papers is a retrograde step.
As a matter of fact, many political parties came to power based on the use of EVMs in the 2014 elections. The Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh is one of them. Now the TDP’s demand for ballot papers is negative politics. Efforts to make EVMs foolproof is one thing and going back to ballot papers is another. As technology is continuously improving, going back to the manual drudgery is simply imprudent.
Longer election process means longer lame duck government. This also results in frictions between officialdom and the parties in government. But the spirit of democracy and the intent of free and fair elections necessitate the election code of conduct. There are explicit guidelines, the CEC and courts to adjudicate as well as the time-tested experience of conducting the elections. It will not be a big problem to overcome small aberrations if all political parties keep their intent on free and fair elections intact.
The recalcitrance of some political parties, which make a mountain out of a molehill in the middle of the elections, is not desirable. The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister has been a big critic of the election process this time and it does no good to our democracy. His overenthusiasm to run the government in full steam during the model code is a paradox.
However, the EC not only needs to conduct the elections in a free and fair manner but also needs to appear to be doing so. In doing so, it may tread on the toes of some governments, which cannot be avoided. The transfer of intelligence chief and the CS of AP is a pointer in this regard. It was only a transfer not a punishment.
If the State government took the transfer in the right spirit, the embarrassment could have been avoided. Another interesting development was the Chief Minister’s objection to the CS appointed by the EC making a full review of the finances of the State. Since the finances of the State are reported to be on edge, what difference does a review make for a lame duck government?
But there is no denying the fact that the duration of the elections this time around, especially for the States that went to polls in the first phase, is a little too long. The elections could have been organised in 4 or 5 phases in 15-20 days.
(The author is a freelance journalist)