Monday, March 05, 2007

EC's non-transparent role: a rejoinder

My post on E.C.'s lack of transparency has elicited three responses - from Ms.Sunanda Bharati, Mr. Arun and Mr.Vivek Reddy and all responses are similar. I am thankful to all of them for sharing their thoughts on the issue.
I agree with the view that the state police may be biased, and it is not advisable to trust it completely in any election. My view is only that let the E.C. follow certain parameters or criteria to decide which polling stations would come under the CPMF and which would be under the state police. The convention has been that the CPMF would get those polling stations considered as sensitive, in terms of the past violence, malpractices etc. In West Bengal, such polling stations were clearly identified. Still, the CPMF got 100 per cent coverage by virtue of the E.C.'s decision. It was not the case that the entire state of West Bengal was considered sensitive by the EC. In deciding the degree of CPMF cover in West Bengal, the EC went by the Opposition's view on this issue, even though it was not practical or feasible to extend such cover. In fact, in 2004 Lok Sabha election, the E.C. wanted/decided to bring in 50 per cent of the polling staff from outside the state of West Bengal. When the plan did not succeed due to non-cooperation from the staff of other states, it quietly buried the proposal. In West Bengal, it did not even trust the state government personnel. One need not be a supporter of the Left Parties to understand how flawed the E.C.'s approach was. The E.C. must take decisions on the basis of objective factors, not on the basis of views expressed by frustrated opposition parties. Ensuring complaint-free election cannot be an end in itself; rather, the way the E.C. redresses the complaints must be the test of its ability to conduct free and fair elections.
The E.C.'s move is disturbing, not only because it violates the federal character. Article 324 cannot be overstretched to read a power which was not intended, or necessary to ensure free and fair elections. In other words, the E.C. cannot claim a prililege to deny specific information or inputs on which it based its decisions under Article 324. Otherwise, the Right to Information Act would have been inapplicable to the E.C. No doubt, in a democracy, opposition's complaints must be taken seriously; but if these complaints (in the case of West Bengal, it was a demand for 100 per cent CPMF cover) have no basis, the E.C. must politely and transparently tell the parties concerned why they could not be accepted. In its efforts to ensure free and fair polls, the E.C. must not emphasise form over substance. The elections should not only be seen to be free and fair, but be actually free and fair.
Let me explain why the decision may actually be contrary to free and fair polls. In view of the CPMF's limited strength, the E.C. has to necessarily opt for many phases of polls. In West Bengal, it was five-phase poll, (whereas in previous elections, it was just two-phase). In U.P., it is promising a seven-phase poll. Doubtless, we would all consider this lengthy schedule as an inevitable evil, as there is no other option. In West Bengal, the E.C. began with a premise that the Opposition might be correct, and doubted the integrity of state police and administration to begin with, and ended with eggs on its face, after the outcome.
But pause a little to understand the likely impact of this multi-phaseted election: One, the voters in different phases would be exposed to different issues, if there are certain signficant intervening events. Second, the candidates and the voters in the latter phases, would invariably be exposed to a longer campaign period, than what is statutorily envisaged (14 days), resulting in greater expense and suspense. These factors would inevitably compromise the so-called level-playing field for the various stake-holders, which in turn, would only make the promise of free and fair elections meaningless. In that context, would it make sense to talk of a state-wide mandate, if at all there is one?
Arun referred to the pressures of pragmatism over principles. But the logic of pragmatism is clearly against the E.C.'s decision. Why on earth 100 per cent CPMF cover? The E.C. can make any number of micro-interventions to keep the police and administration on tenterhooks. The former CEC, Dr.M.S.Gill once suggested placing the states under President's rule prior to the notification of assembly elections. All the parties unanimously opposed the proposal for what it is: it is not only against the Constitutional scheme, but militates against the federal character, as the same logic cannot be extended to the Centre, when there is a Lok Sabha poll.
There appears to be a consensus that imposition of President's rule in U.P. - notwithstanding Mulayam Singh Yadav's bad record in office, and the possible misuse of state machinery during the elections - would be clearly contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Is it fair to bring in President's rule de facto through the E.C.'s decision to bring almost all polling stations under the CPMF? Supposing if a state is going to the polls under the President's rule, and a government preceding the President's rule was accused of playing havoc with the neutrality of the police force, would the E.C. still go for 100 per cent CPMF cover? It may not. It would identify those partisan police officers, and demand their transfer or other forms of punishment during the polling process. One does not understand why the same cannot be tried in U.P. under Mulayam.
Let us understand the logic of deploying the CPMF. It is to instil confidence among the voters, who would otherwise face intimidation and threats from vested interests, in the face of an apathetic or partisan state police. To say that the entire electorate in a state suffers from such fear and intimidation is making too tall a claim, which cannot be sustained by any stretch of argument.
Lastly, Vivek's last comment bares it all: the E.C. has no courage to publicly share something, if it believes it is the truth that the state police machinery does not inspire confidence in holding a free and a fair election. Clearly, the E.C.'s so-called belief is implicit in its decision, even though it has not mustered the courage to declare it publicly. Is not this implicit -unexpressed - belief sufficient enough to undermine the morale of the State police? If the E.C. is convinced that it will undermine the morale, would it not be advisable to look for more practical, and sensible remedies, after due discussion with all political parties, and publicly sharing the truth about the risks (that is undermining the morale of the state police) involved in taking such a decision, so that the parties and the nation are taken into confidence? In other words, why should the E.C. feel shy of admitting a truth when it subscribes to the nation's avowed motto of satyam-eva-jayate!
P.S. For more on this topic, please read my article in Frontline, and the interview with Mr.Prakash Karat, CPI(M) general secretary.
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