On April 21, Ankit Shukla came across a video of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an election rally in Banswara, Rajasthan. In his speech, Modi accused the Congress party of planning to collect gold from Hindu households and distributing it to Muslims, whom he called “infiltrators” and “those with more children”.

As Scroll pointed out, the prime minister’s speech was riddled with lies.

Shukla, a Pune-based software engineer, had never written to the Election Commission of India before. But later that night, he drafted an email to Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar, imploring him to take the “strictest action” against Modi. “No such person whose mind is filled with the poison of hate and bigotry against Indians should be allowed to continue to participate in the Indian elections,” said his email.

Shukla has not yet received a response to his email.

In this election season, the prime minister has led the charge against the Opposition by repeatedly pitting disadvantaged communities against Muslims. He has falsely claimed that the Congress manifesto promises to scrap reservation for Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes and award it to Muslims. The Bharatiya Janata Party handles on social media have been accused of posting videos that “demonise Muslims”.

But the Election Commission’s neutrality in dealing with complaints of poll violations by the Hindutva party has come under intense scrutiny.

For instance, the Election Commission sent a notice to BJP chief JP Nadda eight days after Modi’s Banswara speech – without naming the prime minister. The poll panel also waited till the end of the Karnataka election to instruct Twitter to take down an offensive video posted by the BJP Karnataka handle on May 4 that caricatured Muslims as a parasitic bird that pushed other chicks – labelled SC, ST and OBC – out of the nest after being fed “funds” by Congress politician Rahul Gandhi.

Again, no reprimand was issued to the Hindutva party.

Ordinary citizens troubled by these instances of hate speech and violations of the model code of conduct have tried to push the Election Commission to act.

But, as Scroll found out, the Election Commission’s official channels to address complaints from ordinary voters about poll code violations – the CVigil app and the National Grievance Redressal System – either do not work or provide poor resolution.

We sent a set of questions to the Election Commission of India. This story will be updated if we receive a response.

Outside the office of the Election Commission. Credit: AFP.

A dysfunctional app

The Election Commission of India launched the CVigil app in 2018. Its website says that the app is supposed to “enable citizens to report violations of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) during elections.”

On CVigil, users can register complaints through pictures, audios and videos.

But Scroll found that the app did not work on either Android or iOS phones. On Android, the app is stuck on the opening screen and does not proceed to the registration or login page.

Ujval Nanavati, 48, a writer and editor at a leading business journalism website, said that he took recourse to the CVigil app after Modi’s Banswara speech on April 21. “I tried CVigil but it never ever worked,” he said. “[It] just stayed hung on the opening screen.”

On the Apple app store website, the app is rated 1.9 out of 5 after 140 ratings, accompanied by reviews that complain about poor user experience. One of them is by Rajkumar Singh Deora, dated March 23, 2024, which said that the app “unexpectedly shuts down” when he was “attempting to access photos, videos, or audios within the application”.

As of May 7, with three of the seven phases of the Lok Sabha elections wrapped up, Scroll verified independently that this problem persists.

It is unlikely that CVigil was a roaring success even when it worked. Balram Vishwakarma, 30, a marketer in Mumbai, remembers using the app to file complaints on poll code violations during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “I never heard back on my complaints back then,” Vishwakarma said. “So I don’t use it for such complaints anymore.”

Credit: Google Play Store.

Instead, Vishwakarma organised an email campaign to Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar on his Twitter and Instagram handles after Modi’s speech on April 21. Nanavati emailed more than 12 email IDs mentioned on the EC website. But neither of them heard back.

Jagdeep Chhokar, a founding member of the Bengaluru-based nonprofit Association of Democratic Reforms, told Scroll that voters complained to the Election Commission over emails because the official channels do not work. But even this avenue held little promise. “There is no way to ensure action, or a follow up, when it comes to email complaints,” he said. “Most of the time the EC does not respond. Some people then file Right to Information applications. But that process takes a month and so it does not have any impact during the elections.”

During the 2022 Gujarat assembly elections, Chhokar and three others had flagged a speech by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in which he said that the perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat violence “were taught a lesson”. Despite reminders to the poll body, Chhokar did not hear back.

“A month after the elections, we received a response from the EC that it had found no violations in Shah’s speech,” Chhokar said. A year later, Shah repeated the remark in a rally in Gujarat.

A circular trap

Faced with a dysfunctional CVigil, voters have one other option to register complaints with the Election Commission. The National Grievance Service Portal, or NGRS, allows a voter to flag election-related problems after a registration process.

Along with the complaint, the grievance portal demands information like phone number, state, district and Assembly constituency. It also asks the complaint to be filed under a category and sub-category.

To check the effectiveness of grievance portal, this reporter filed a complaint against the video shared by the Karnataka BJP on Instagram and X on May 4.

The next day, an email by the grievance portal said that the complaint had been resolved. The accompanying remark added: “Sir, I would like to inform you that this complaint is from Karnataka and it would be appropriate to register it on the website of the state of Karnataka.”

The website of the Chief Electoral Commissioner in Karnataka has a “Register Complaints” option. But it only leads back to the National Grievance Service Portal.

Falling trust

The Election Commission’s faulty grievance redressal system does seem to shape how voters seek accountability over poll code violations.

For instance, Vir Mehta, a 29-year-old who works in the development sector, came across the BJP Karnataka video and reported it to X, not the EC. “It didn’t even occur to me to write a letter to the EC and say that the video is reprehensible,” he said. “A part of it comes from this cynicism that the EC is not going to do much about it.”

Mehta said with social media platforms, despite the clampdown of the IT rules, there is at least an assumption of neutrality. “I don’t get that sense with the EC,” he said.

Mehta is not alone in his distrust of the Election Commission. A common refrain among those who filed complaints with the poll body was they did it despite knowing that it would not yield any results.

“As a citizen, even as a human, I just wanted to register my discomfort,” said Vishwakarma. “At some point in the future, if a committee is set up to look into what is happening today, at least they will find my complaint.”

Harsh Gupta, a 36-year-old digital marketing professional who votes in Jaipur, said that he had no expectations of accountability from the Election Commission. “The way things have transpired into a bottomless pit, and so blatantly, if there were something that could happen, it would have happened already,” he said. “We would not have reached a point where [Modi’s Banswara] speech would’ve been made.”

A pre-poll survey released in April by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies confirmed that public confidence in the Election Commission was declining. In the last five years, those who trusted the EC to a “great extent” fell from 51% to 28%.

In an email to Chief Election Commissioner Kumar on April 22, Gupta shared a link to Modi’s speech and wrote that “if there is any moral compass in how you function, you’d take some action against this and you will not let him [Modi] go unnoticed.”