This Challenge If Ignored Can Imperil Indian Democracy
IN the run up to the US presidential election in November 2020, the Democratic nominee Joe Biden is building up a lead over President Donald Trump seeking re-election for the Republicans. Not only is Biden gaining traditional Democratic votes, but he is cutting into those sections who usually support the Republicans. This is on account of the raw deal meted out to large sections of the US society, particularly the homeless, unemployed and other economically vulnerable sections. They are at the receiving end of growing inequality and poverty. The pandemic and its pathetic management by the Trump administration has aggravated the situation for them and thd middle class. However, there is apprehension about the actual outcome – the likelihood of Trump’s re-election.
This thinking is not so much on account of popular perception and its capacity to be converted into electoral choices, but on the possibility of electoral manipulation. Greg Pallast, author of best sellers like Billionaire & Ballot Bandits and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy asserts this. An investigative journalist, Pallast is one of the foremost experts in US on vote suppression and vote fraud.He has named his new upcoming book, quite ominously as How Trump stole 2020:The Hunt For America’s Vanished Voters! Pallast’s contention is not fantasy; it is based on concrete experience of the rigging of gubernatorial elections in Georgia in 2018 by disenfranchising half a million votes in the State largely through the manipulation of postal ballots. Pallast predicts with a note of certainty that the Georgian experience will be replicated on a national scale in Novemeber 2020.
OUR OWN ENCOUNTER
WITH POSTAL BALLOT
This backdrop is important as we have been forced to consider our own encounter with major changes in the rules over use of postal ballots. The Election Commission of India (ECI) is initiating measures to provide voters aged over 64 years and those with physical disabilities and Covid 19 infections the opportunity to use postal ballots. Media has also reported that ECI had sought a modification from the law ministry to this effect and secured it.
In response to a request from the ECI, the law ministry amended the conduct of the election rules to allow people with disabilities and those who are 80 years of age or above to opt for postal ballot during the general elections to parliament and state assemblies in October 2019. As reported, subsequently the EC had approached the government to further amend the rule in the light of the Covid 19 pandemic. Subsequently, on June 19, the law ministry has notified fresh change to allow those above 65 years and above the option of exercising postal ballots. The amended rules also allow “Covid-19 suspect or affected persons” same option of postal ballots.
The procedure adopted by the ECI is brazen reversal of the procedures which are currently in vogue. Our electoral system has always treated physical verifiability of the voters as the bedrock of the integrity of our practice. With the two amendments of the rules, a very large number of voters will be out of this verifiability matrix. This assumes great significance because of the abrupt and substantial increase in postal ballot enabled voters and with instances of manipulation and malpractice even with the comparatively low number of those involved with service personnel on election duty previously.
In the light of this significant change, the CPI(M) had to write to the EC as to how the entire exercise has been undertaken without all-party consultation which has been a strong and consistent precedent to usher reforms. A number of other political parties have also subsequently followed suit. The EC’s response has further aggravated the apprehension about not just unilateralism, but a conscious obfuscation. Citing a pilot exercise in a few booths in Delhi assembly elections and a mention of the new rules by the chief election officer of Bihar in his meeting with the political parties is being sought to be passed off as ‘consultation’!
LEGACY OF THE EC:
BULWARK FOR DEMOCRACY
In the past, the Indian electoral system has been credited for being robust and vibrant while remaining focused on ensuring probity. Much of the credit for this goes to the ECI, because despite the wide ranging and comprehensive powers under Article 324 for ‘control and superintendence’ of elections bestowed by the constitution, the commission has always insisted that they will not exercise this power unilaterally. As a result, it has created an extremely healthy precedent of recognising the political parties as principal stakeholders representing the people. They have been invariably involved in forging a consensus while ushering in changes in the functionalities of the conduct of elections. It will be pertinent to recall that the model code of conduct (MCC), a major electoral reform, was arrived at through the consensus of the entire spectrum of political parties. Even though it is not backed by statutory empowerment, it has never been questioned. Apart from ensuring the convergence of the political parties and the ECI, it has reinforced transparency in the system earning widespread appreciation.
Contrary to this past practice, the current changes in the rules, both in October 2019 and that on June 19, 2020 have not been preceded by any consultation with the political parties whatsoever. From the media reports, it is clear that the tearing hurry that the ECI displays is on account of the impending Bihar assembly elections supposedly to be held in November 2020. The intended changes also presume the possible circumstances on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The timeline is too farfetched for introducing new voting practices which will undermine verifiability of a large number of voters and, in its turn, transparency and integrity of the process; not to mention, the leverage available to the incumbent administration in organising the postal ballots.
DIGITAL CAMPAIGN & MONEY POWER:
On the eve of the 2019 general election, the then BJP president, Amit Shah had publicly stated that the party can, with its network of 32 lakh whatsapp groups, make any message, true or false, viral within hours. Add to this, the finding of international fact check websites that the overwhelming majority of fake news is generated in India. And now on the eve of elections, the party has kicked off the virtual election campaign by putting up 72,000 LED TV monitors for Shah’s speech. After holding 60 virtual rallies, the BJP has claimed that its election campaign efforts would involve 9,500 IT cell heads who will coordinate 72,000 whatsapp groups of which 50,000 have been formed in the last two months.
It is in such a situation, the Bihar CEO in his meeting with the political parties mooted the idea that the entire election will be held on a virtual platform because of the physical distancing requirements. Parties have opposed this preposterous idea in the Indian context. But more than any other question, the technology driven paradigm for electioneering involves the deployment of huge financial resources. But for BJP nobody has that kind of resources. The gap between BJP and all other parties in securing corporate poll funding has multiplied manifold. The anonymous corporate funds without any upper ceiling now spell the death knell of democracy.
With the unresolved question of opaque electoral bonds on poll funding, remaining pending before the Supreme Court, where the EC has itself agreed that it poses a major challenge in monitoring and supervising the income/expenditure of the election exercise, this new question of postal ballots will further aggravate the situation in potential favour of the ruling party.
Therefore, it needs to be unequivocally stated that the ECI should stop in unilaterally proceeding further in implementing these changes without proper and transparent consultation with the political parties. It is imperative that upholding the best traditions of the institution in ensuring a level playing field, remains a foundational principle for conduct of free and fair polls.