During the sixth phase of the seemingly never-ending elections in India, the Election Commission of India used a scene from the Kiran Rao film Laapataa Ladies to encourage voter participation amid concerns of declining voter turnout. This immediately spawned several memes in social media, including one that labelled the Election Commission as laapataa (missing) lads or gents, an impression that the chief election commissioner attempted to correct on Monday, the day before the results were declared.

The fact that many Indians viewed the commission as missing in action represents a dramatic fall for one of the more trusted institutions in India. This decline has of course not happened overnight.

We often forget that the Election Commission like many of fourth branch institutions or special-purpose branches – a term used to describe a wide range of institutions from the auditor general to central banks – was not always regarded as powerful as it is today. The Election Commission India by the early years of Independence had established a credible reputation by successfully running the first general elections in 1951-’52, which was a mammoth task by any standards.

However, it was only in the 1990s under the stewardship of election commissioner TN Seshan – at the time there was only one commissioner, unlike the current three-member panel – that the organisation took on a bigger role. As historian David Gilmartin notes in his article titled One Day’s Sultan (a reference to the Indian voter who is a much-wooed protagonist on voting day but also to Seshan who reigned over the election period), the biggest achievement of the Seshan-led commission was the enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct.

The idea of the code went back some way to 1960 when civil society groups pressured political parties and election officials to agree on a code of conduct for the elections. More states followed and the Election Commission expanded the scope of the code to cover several aspects of campaigning, including prohibiting appeal to caste or communal sentiments. A recent addition to the code is a prohibition in election manifestoes of making promises that are “repugnant to the ideals of the Constitution”. The code comes into effect as soon as the polling dates are announced and remains in place until results.

However, the code remained voluntary until Seshan enforced it in a manner that had not been done earlier. Though the code is not legally enforceable, violations of its provisions could lead to punitive action. During Seshan’s time, one of the threats he employed against the political class was the postponement of elections. Nowadays, the most common punishment is a ban on candidates from campaigning for a certain period if they are found violating the code.

Another change that occurred during Seshan’s time was the Election Commission’s right to requisition and control staff for electoral work. It also now controls the transfer of government staff ahead of elections. These rights were won with the backing of the courts.

Many of these additional powers have flowed from what Gilmartin has called the establishment of an “electoral time”, which was distinguished from normal politics through a higher morality and discipline. These powers were by and large applauded by the middle classes though analysts like AG Noorani had been critical of Seshan for expanding the Election Commission’s jurisdiction and upsetting the balance of power within government. In the post-Seshan era, most chief election commissioners have taken their role of independently enforcing the electoral regulations fairly seriously.

However, in the past five years, the Election Commission’s reputation has fallen to the extent that the CSDS-Lokniti pre-poll survey in 2024 found that respondents who do not have much trust in the organisation had doubled from 2019. Much of this distrust possibly stems from primacy of the executive in the appointment of election commissioners, which has always made the institution susceptible to political pressure.

In response to a Supreme Court ruling on the absence of a formal process for appointing election commissioners, the government in 2023 enacted a law that constituted a selection panel comprising the prime minister, a Union minister and the leader of the single largest party in the opposition. Of course, that did not solve the problem of the executive having the majority power in the appointment.

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Even as this law was being challenged in court, the government had to appoint two new commissioners in the run-up to the general elections after the abrupt and unexplained resignation of one and the retirement of another.

This has meant that the independence of the Election Commission is largely dependent on the person who is heading it any given moment. I have argued elsewhere that other fourth branch institutions like the Comptroller and Auditor General, which was one of the most talked about institutions in the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, also face the same problem. Indeed, the CAG has virtually stopped publishing reports questioning government policy and expenditure after Vinod Rai retired as the auditor general in 2013.

The infirmities of the Election Commission over the past few years has been in evidence in the way some of the Assembly elections in the recent past has been scheduled. The efficiency of the commission in providing voter cards and maintaining updated electoral rolls has been questioned as is its inability to enforce the cap on campaign spending. The excessively lengthy polling schedule for the general election, ostensibly for security reasons, is also arguably geared to allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi to crisscross the country in what is now tantamount to a presidential election. Indeed, Modi made full use of the schedule addressing a record number of rallies.

During the election, the weaknesses of the Election Commission and the model code were on display even more prominently. Violations of the code in communal speeches, particularly by Modi and some of his party colleagues, were routinely ignored or inadequately dealt with. There was also instances of delayed action such as an offensive video posted by the Karnataka unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was asked to be taken down after the polling was over in the state. Though the commission has touted the success of its CVigil app where citizens can report violations, several users and reports have complained that the app does not work.

Like many of India’s institutions, the institutional design of the Election Commission has contributed to its deficiencies. However, the current infirmities of the Election Commission must be seen as part of the larger story of emasculation and capture of institutions since 2014.

Ronojoy Sen is a Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore and author of House of the People: Parliament and the Making of Indian Democracy.