By now, it is common knowledge that the Election Commission of India is a constitutional authority vested with powers to conduct elections under Article 324 of the Constitution. This constitutional mandate is not merely to hold elections but to also ensure that they are conducted in a free and fair manner. After all, free and fair elections are the pivot of any representative democracy and ensures the continuing trust of the people in the system.
Given this context, the commission is expected to be fiercely independent and should avoid any decisions that can give rise to suspicions that it is partisan. Over the last few years, however, the poll authority has found itself mired in controversy every time it announces the dates for state elections.
On Saturday, the Congress reacted sharply after the commission postponed by three hours a press conference in which it was supposed to announce the dates for Assembly elections in five states. Journalists were initially sent messages stating that the press conference would be held at 12.30 pm. It was then postponed to 3.30 pm. The Congress pointed out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to address a rally in Ajmer, Rajasthan, at 1 pm and insinuated that the delay in announcing the dates could have been to accommodate the rally. The model code of conduct would have come into force before the start of the rally if the commission had stuck to its original schedule for the press conference.
Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat clarified that the change in time was to help journalists reach the venue as the messages were sent only at 10 am.
However, this is not the first time the poll body has faced such a controversy. Last year, the commission was accused of helping the Bharatiya Janata Party when it announced the poll dates for Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat separately. Elections for these two states, and indeed any states that are going to the polls within a few months of each other, are usually announced together as per the convention. While the Himachal Pradesh poll dates were announced on October 12, the Gujarat dates were announced on October 25, nearly two weeks later. During this period, the BJP in Gujarat made a slew of announcements and poll promises.
Even on Saturday, while announcing the dates for Assembly elections in five states, and bye-elections to Assembly and Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka, the poll body did not give dates for bye-polls in Tamil Nadu, raising eyebrows. Rawat said this was because the state’s chief secretary had written to the commission flagging the cyclone season between October and December. But how it will be difficult to hold bye-elections to two constituencies during the north-east monsoon is a question that is yet to be answered. The election commission could always postpone the event if a cyclone develops ahead of the polls. The state now has 20 Assembly constituencies vacant due to judicial intervention and the death of legislators.
Even assuming that the commission was not acting in a partisan manner and these controversies were merely the result of poor timing and judgement, should a constitutional body entrusted with the duty of running the election system act in such a casual manner?
It is time the commission realised that not only should it function independently, it should also be seen as functioning independently.