The Big Story: Failing watchdog

The legendary British judge Lord Chief Justice Gordon Hewart’s statement in 1924 became an important legal maxim that guides judicial institutions even today. It is not merely of some importance, Hewart said, but of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, “but should be manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done.”

This cardinal principle applies to all institutions which are in a position to enforce rules. The Election Commission of India is no exception. But as the campaign for Gujarat elections drew to a close this week, the concept of justice took a beating at the hands of the poll body.

The campaign for the final phase, which was bitter in the manner in which it was conducted by the Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, ended on Tuesday. Some television channels in Gujarat aired Congress president-elect Rahul Gandhi’s interviews after the deadline for the campaign passed. The BJP shot complaints to the Election Commission, which, within matter of hours, ordered registration of First Information Report against the news channels.

On Thursday, this alacrity of the commission was completely missing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi converted the act of casting his vote into a spectacle by taking out a small roadshow after he emerged out of the polling booth in Ahmedabad. Television channels were showing these images live. The Congress immediately cried foul, pointing out that such paraphernalia while exercising a constitutional duty was a direct violation of the model code of conduct by the Prime Minister.

The commission this time was unmoved and later blamed the Congress for not sticking to the allotted time of 1 pm to make the complaint on Thursday. The commission later said complaints received on Modi’s alleged roadshow were being examined, with the BJP now claiming it was no roadshow at all.

The roadshow was only one part of the problem. The Congress has pointed out that while FIRs have been registered against television channels for airing Gandhi’s interviews, the commission turned a blind eye to the BJP’s violation of guidelines. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley released the party’s poll manifesto in Ahmedabad on December 8, when the campaign for the first phase had ended. Modi himself held four public meetings on December 9, the day of the first phase of polling. Both were widely covered by the media and were telecast in areas where polling was on, the Congress alleged. Amit Shah, the BJP president, addressed a press conference on Wednesday in Ahmedabad. After much hue and cry and allegations of partisan functioning, the commission said the Gujarat chief electoral officer has been asked to file a report on the complaints.

It is always unhealthy to point fingers at individuals in a constitutional body to fix the blame. However, the Election Commission had the additional responsibility of ensuring no room was given to such charges as the Chief Election Commissioner, Achal Kumar Joti, is an officer from Gujarat who was known to be close to the prime minister’s office prior to his appointment. The difference in speed and strength of actions on the complaints from competing sides has unfortunately given space for accusations, with the Congress now calling the commission a “puppet” and a “frontal agency” of the ruling party. If it wants to retain the confidence of the people that elections would be held in a free and fair manner under its watch, and avoid erosion of its authority, the commission needs to follow Hewart’s words in spirit and ensure that justice is also seen to be done.


  1. In Gujarat, religious polarisation remains a dominant theme. And caste is back, in a different version, argues Christophe Jaffrelot in the Indian Express. 
  2.   The Russia-India-China trilateral meet is New Delhi’s attempt to overcome challenges in ties with Moscow and Beijing, says Harsh V Pant in The Hindu. 
  3.   The United States recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as part of its decades-long support of Israeli colonialism, writes Greg Shupak in the Jacobin.


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