A group of retired civil servants wrote to the Election Commission of India on Wednesday, alleging that the 2019 General Elections appeared to have been one of the “least free and fair” in the last three decades.

“From time to time, the media has reported on various irregularities in the conduct of the 2019 General Elections,” they wrote. “While we accept that not every media report is accurate or true, the ECI’s non-rebuttal of an inaccurate or untrue story leaves the public to draw its own conclusion: that the ECI has no valid explanation to offer. The mere dismissal of the allegations as baseless, without an explanation as to why they should be so considered, is unsatisfactory.”

The signatories said that in the past, the Election Commission did its best to conduct free and fair elections despite the influence of “criminal elements, musclemen and unscrupulous politicians”. However, in the 2019 elections, an impression gathered that the democratic process had been subverted by the poll panel itself, the former civil servants said.

“So blatant were the acts of omission and commission by the ECI that even former election commissioners and CECs [chief election commissioners] have been compelled, albeit reluctantly, to question the decisions of their successors in office,” the group wrote.

The signatories questioned the Election Commission’s decision to exonerate the government of charges of misusing official machinery during campaigns. A report published by Scroll.in on April 10 had said that a NITI Aayog official had written to collectors of three districts in Maharashtra ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rallies there. Based on the report, the Congress moved the Election Commission against the alleged misuse of state machinery by the Modi’s office for his election campaign.

“Even though this was a blatant violation of the MCC [Model Code of Conduct], the EC merely dismissed the complaint,” the letter said. “Why did the ECI treat the MCC in such a cavalier fashion and apply it in so obviously discriminatory a manner?”

The letter alleged that the poll panel’s bias “towards one particular political party” became obvious when it delayed the announcement of the election dates till March 10 “without any explanation of justification”. “This led to the reasonable doubt that the ECI deliberately delayed the announcement to enable Prime Minister Narendra Modi to complete the inauguration blitz of a slew of projects that he had scheduled between February 8 and March 9,” said the letter.

The letter added that in states where the Bharatiya Janata Party was weak, the elections were held in a single phase. On the other hand, in states where the BJP faced tough competition or was likely to gain seats, the polling was held in several phases. The voting in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, was “conveniently slotted in the last phase”, the letter said.

The letter alleged that while there were many reports of voter exclusion, some of them suggested that voters from certain minority groups were the most affected. The letter also criticised the poll panel for ignoring the violations of the Model Code of Conduct by BJP chief Amit Shah and by Narendra Modi. The signatories said that Modi had blatantly used the Pulwama attack and Balakot air strikes to whip up jingoistic fervour.

The signatories also attacked the functioning of NaMo TV, the media attention given to the prime minister’s visit to Kedarnath, and the opacity of electoral funding due to the use of electoral bonds. They also said that doubts over electronic voting machines persist despite the poll panel’s claim that they are tamper-proof.

“Our Election Commission used to be the envy of the entire world, including developed countries, for its ability to conduct free and fair elections despite the huge logistical challenges and the hundreds of millions of voters,” the ex-civil servants wrote. “It is indeed saddening to witness the process of the demise of that legacy.”

“Viewed in totality, there is no doubt that the mandate of 2019 has been thrown into serious doubt,” the letter concludes. “The concerns raised are too central to the well-being of our democracy for the ECI to leave unexplained. In the interests of ensuring that this never happens again, the ECI needs to pro-actively issue public clarifications in respect of each of these reported irregularities, and put in place steps to prevent such incidents from occurring in future. This is essential to restore the people’s faith in our electoral process.”