The Election Commission of India on Wednesday took the view that in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s April 9 election rally speech in Latur, he did not violate its instructions against using references to the armed forces for electoral purposes.

Modi had said:

  “I want to tell my first-time voters: Can your first vote be dedicated to the brave soldiers who carried out the air strike in Balakot in Pakistan? I want to tell my first-time voters: Can your first vote be dedicated to the braves martyred in Pulwama?…you are now 18 years old, and the country has given you a great deal …so your first vote should be for the nation… give your first vote to make a strong government, and I say to first time voters you will be able to say with pride, if you press the  button on the lotus, or on the bow and arrow, then your vote is going directly into Modi’s account…”   

The Indian Express reported on Thursday that in arriving at its decision, the Election Commission had overruled the opinion of the Maharashtra and Osmanabad district election officers “on the technicality that Modi did not seek votes for either his party or himself while invoking the Balakot air strikes”.

This is just the latest and perhaps the most breathtakingly blatant of the series of sleight-of-hand decisions favouring Modi that the Election Commission has taken since it announced the election dates in March.

The evidence is in the public domain, on Modi’s YouTube channel (45.58 minutes onwards).

There cannot be two interpretations of an exhortation on how to vote, which begins with Modi asking for votes dedicated to soldiers and ends with him saying votes for the lotus – the BJP symbol – go directly to his account.

And yet, the Election Commission saw no violation.

Except to the permanently deluded, this would confirm beyond reasonable doubt that, in the Election Commission’s view, the model code of conduct and its other advisories do not apply to Modi. He has a free pass.

Former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi, in an interview to The Hindu last month, said:

“…Even advisories for senior leaders is good enough because it leads to a lot of naming and shaming, which is effective. To say that the EC is toothless in ensuring that the MCC [Model Code of Conduct] is followed is wrong. It probably needs a little more will power to act strongly, particularly against the ruling party, because the ruling party always has an advantage, which has to be neutralised. I think the EC has enough teeth. Just polite advice to the Prime Minister is enough to cause ripples. To underestimate the power of advisories is wrong.”

The Election Commission has, however, displayed no desire to show its teeth or test the power of its advisories. Since the election was notified, it has performed contortions, tried to hide behind procedure, or simply lied to protect Modi’s free pass.

Turning a blind eye

Here are just three examples from a long list.

First, after Modi broadcast a triumphal message taking credit for a conveniently timed anti-satellite missile on March 27, the Election Commission held that he had not violated the Model Code of Conduct because his speech was broadcast only by private TV stations and not by the public broadcaster, Doordarshan.

Second, when the Supreme Court took cognisance of a complaint by the Congress about the Election Commission’s inaction on complaints about Modi’s election code violations, the poll body claimed it had not heard the complaints because there had been no meeting of the full Commission.

Third, on April 16, the Election Commission suspended an IAS officer on duty as a general election observer for checking the prime minister’s helicopter, claiming its guidelines stipulated that the prime minister’s vehicles cannot be checked. There is no such rule.

After the Supreme Court rebuked it for failing to use its powers against election candidates and campaigners violating the election code, Election Commission orders punishing other high-profile candidates and campaigners have been coming thick and fast.

Over the past few weeks, the Election Commission has issued orders against Mayawati, Maneka Gandhi, Aditynath, Azam Khan and Pragya Thakur, among others, banning them from campaigning for between one and three days.

These orders only serve to put the poll body’s continuing special treatment of Modi into sharp focus as the prime minister has committed the same infractions as these other politicians, and he has done so repeatedly, but no action has been taken against him.

On April 1, in his speech in Wardha, Maharashtra – and there are many similar examples – Modi exhorted voters to defeat the Congress because the party, according to him, had hurt Hindus by “coining the term Hindu terror”.

Modi said: “…They have sought to mark the crores of this country with the stain to Hindu terrorism. You tell me…when you heard the term Hindu terror, were you not gravely hurt?”

There can be no more direct appeal to religion and religious differences than this, short of saying: “I am Hindu, Rahul Gandhi is for Muslims. You are Hindus, vote for me.”

The Representation of People Act states: “Indulgence in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic” is a punishable “corrupt practice”, and an “appeal to caste or communal feeling for securing votes…” is in addition an “electoral offence”.

In the same speech Modi, in characteristic style, also said that Congress president Rahul Gandhi had chosen to stand from Wyanand because the “majority is in a minority” in that Kerala constituency. With this, he repeated a powerful BJP canard made many times and in many different ways since 2013, that the Congress was a “Muslim party”.

Commission falls short

After the 2014 election, no one was in any doubt about the challenge the BJP posed during elections. In 2014, the Election Commission could, to a certain extent, legitimately claim to have been overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge.

But in the intervening five years, the nature of the polarising campaigns the BJP runs, and the insouciance with which it violates laws governing the conduct of elections has been normalised.

An Election Commission that was intent on doing its job would have strengthened the mechanisms to deal with the myriad violations – which are amplified uncountable times through repetition on television and social media.

But the Election Commission has chosen not to.

The Commission’s conduct is not merely a weak-kneed bureaucratic response as has been argued since 2013 and through the last five years during which campaigns for state elections have scraped the bottom of the barrel.

Its decisions, especially over the last month, seem to be a calculated series of actions to signal that Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora and Election Commissioners Ashok Lavasa and Sushil Chandra do not feel bound to maintain even the appearance of neutrality where Modi is concerned and are unmoved by the opprobrium of their peers or public revulsion at their actions.

There can be only two reasons for this: either they are either committed to Narendra Modi and his ideological agenda or they fear the vindictiveness of the Modi-BJP.

Erosion of trust

The Election Commission is a rare Indian institution that has, at least since the 1990s, enjoyed enormous public trust. Even the recent uncertainties over the trustworthiness of electronic voting machines, and the lacunae in updated electoral rolls have not visibly dented the faith Indians have in the commission.

This is trust built on the work of commissioners past, and an election machine that to a large extent has curtailed many egregious electoral malpractices.

In a country of India’s population, size and complexity, just the conduct of largely free and fair elections is a laudable achievement. The temporary army of officials, deputed from all branches of the government, who draw their powers from the Election Commission and are accountable to it, ensure it is so.

When the commissioners themselves debase the powers of the institution they lead, they compromise the work of the millions of officials, and undermine its credibility. When commissioners disregard the opinion of their senior officials on the ground, as they have done with the complaints against Modi in Maharashtra, they send an unequivocal message – there is discretion in how election norms are to be implemented; its okay to be corrupt.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court once again directed the Election Commission to act on the remaining complaints against Modi and BJP president Amit Shah by May 6.

Over the next few days, we will see if the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners display a modicum of concern for the credibility of the institution they lead or if they confirm that they are comfortable with corrupting an institution for ideological reasons or because they do not have it in them to stand up to a powerful political bully.

Also read:

Model code: Collectors being asked to send PMO local information ahead of Modi visits, email shows

With model poll code in place, was Modi right to announce the missile test in a national TV address?

The Daily Fix: By delaying decision on Modi and Shah, Election Commission has shirked a prime task

The Silent Army: Behind India’s election are 5 million workers. This series brings you their stories