If the Election Commission (EC) were not a vital institution, you might feel a bit sorry for it, because it really does have a lot on its plate. There has been such large-scale abuse of its guidelines in the run-up to the 2019 election that the EC has had, to put it charitably, a hard time keeping up with all the violations. But it’s too important an institution to feel sorry for. When it comes to safeguarding the people’s right to vote in free and fair elections, it should expect only the sharpest public scrutiny.
The EC has not covered itself in glory under the Modi government, having been inexplicably accommodating of the PM’s schedule, and faced criticism of its handling of EVMs and voter rolls. The governing party defies it so much that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the EC is its creature. Like many other institutions by now, the EC is widely perceived as toothless. Now, with elections just a few days away, it will need to hold the line against a tidal wave of propaganda, fake news, and overt communalism.
The EC has dealt with the easy stuff, like the Indian Railways serving customers in cups provided by the NGO Sankalp, emblazoned with ‘Main Hoon Chowkidar’, and Air India printing tickets and boarding passes with Narendra Modi’s image and ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ on them. It took up a complaint from traders in Delhi about Gujarati cloth in Delhi’s wholesale markets being sold in wrappers emblazoned with the Prime Minister’s image and the BJP’s party symbol.
It has written to Doordarshan about airing the PM’s ‘Main bhi chowkidar’ programme. It has pulled up Yogi Adityanath for calling the Army ‘Modiji ka sena’, though it has not pulled up the PM for saying that Rahul Gandhi was contesting in Wayanad because it is a Hindu minority constituency — a statement factually incorrect. The EC remains oddly unsure, at the time of writing, about whether a movie about Mr Modi’s life and accomplishments, whose makers have links to the BJP, should or should not be allowed to run just before voting begins.
The thorny issue of NaMo TV, which spews propaganda 24/7, remains to be sorted. The channel has recently resurfaced after its preelection run last year. Its content — compilations of the PM’s speeches and promotions of the BJP’s schemes and programmes — is available to all channels on the direct to home network. NaMo TV is on air despite having no licence or certification. The EC sought a report from the I&B ministry, which said it was merely an advertising platform paid for by the BJP; the Tata Sky CEO tweeted that the feed comes from the BJP. He also said that the earlier Tata Sky tweet describing the channel as a “Hindi news service” was wrong, that it is a “Special Services” channel, and that for more information approach the client, i.e. the BJP. These contortions make it look shady, even though it may well be within the rules for NaMo TV to operate. However, its ownership, and liability for content, remains unclear.
But the Election Commission’s greatest challenge probably lies in the governing party’s vast network of social media pages and handles, which purport to be independent citizens’ groups with no visible link to the BJP, but which receive funds from the party and are an integral part of its campaigns. The Huffington Post’s excellent investigation into Association of Billion Minds (ABM) should be required reading this election season. ABM sees itself as Amit Shah’s team, and serves as one of the BJP’s political consultants. It helps design and advertise party campaigns, but runs them from what look like fan pages and fan accounts. Much of ABM’s content is communal, much of it is fake, and all of it is about the relentless promotion of Narendra Modi.
The Election Commission is playing whack-a-mole already; it cannot possibly rein in all of the Hydra’s heads. But it can, when there is a financial link involved, consider it part of election campaign funding. As the Huffington Post story points out, the BJP is not the only political party engaging in these tactics — it is only the largest and best funded.
It’s not just tragic, but also dangerous, that “professionalised” elections, with data profiling, marketing “innovations” like ABM, and complete comfort with spreading hate and fake news, as well as utterly complicit media, have destroyed voters’ access to truthful information, and distorted their perspectives on candidates and the quality of their representation.
Can the Election Commission step up to the plate and exert its constitutional powers with non-partisan conviction, to see us through a free and fair election? Upon its credibility hangs the credibility of this democracy.