The Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE), which examines the critical aspects of conducting elections, has in its second report titled “An Inquiry into India’s Election System” highlighted several shortcomings in the existing system.

The report says that the Election Commission of India (ECI) has failed to perform its duties, while also flagging the exclusion of marginalised groups from voters’ lists, the opacity of electoral bonds and the power of big money in winning elections.

The report said since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, “grave doubts” have been raised around the fairness of the polls and wondered if India was becoming an “electoral autocracy”.

In the foreword of the report, former Supreme Court judge Madan. B. Lokur, and former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, write that the report was the outcome of suggestions and support from members of the CCE like Justice Hari Paranthaman, Subhashis Banerjee, Pamela Philipose, Arun Kumar and John Dayal and the research and effort put in by Sanjiva Prasad, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Harsh Mander, V. Ramani, Sanjay Kumar, Jagdeep Chhokar and Anjali Bhardwaj in preparing its various thematic reports.

First report dealt with EVMs, VVPATs

Stating that this report dealt with the merits of EVMs and VVPAT in light of the requirement of verifiability and transparency, specifically in light of their adherence to principles of democracy, Justice Lokur and Habibullah expressed their satisfaction that it “kick-started debates and discussions among the public, universities and political parties.” This is a good sign, they added.

‘ECI’s conduct in 2019 polls led to grave doubts about its fairness’

They said the ECI was set up under Article 324 of the Constitution of India and expected to work with civil society to ensure this within the framework of India’s Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005. However, they added that the “ECI’s conduct of the parliamentary elections of 2019 had led to grave doubts about its fairness, which has always been its greatest strength.”

Pointing out how the Association for Democratic Reforms, the Constitutional Conduct Group of former civil servants and the Forum for Electoral Integrity were among civil society groups that were constrained to invite public attention to what appeared to be the ECI’s shortcomings in living up to its mandate of neutrality, they lamented that the “ECI neither responded to criticism nor sought to defend itself when patent infirmities were specifically pointed out by responsible citizens”.

As such, they said, the CCE was constituted to go into critical aspects of the conduct of elections, call for expert advice where necessary and come up with appropriate suggestions.

The second report, Volume II, they said, deals with the other dimensions of free and fair elections which are vital to the very survival of India’s democracy. These include Integrity and inclusiveness of the electoral rolls; criminalisation, money power and electoral bonds; scheduling and processes of elections and compliance of model code of conduct; role of media, including social media; fake news, etc. and the autonomy of ECI and its functioning before, during and after the elections.

“India losing the status as ‘free’ and becoming an ‘electoral autocracy’”

Writing on “Are Elections in India Free and Fair?”, coordinator of CCE and former IAS officer M.G. Devasahayam, referred to the US-based think tank Freedom House’s report that said: “India loses its status as ‘free’… Political rights and civil liberties have worsened since 2014, and the decline has accelerated since 2019.”

He insisted that “the decline”, in the status, to ‘partly free’, “is due to the increased pressure on human rights organisations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims.”

Devasahayam said the 2019 polls are being flagged as the flash-point that has led to India losing the status as ‘free’ and becoming an ‘electoral autocracy’, according to a Swedish institute. “This is a very serious matter and it is therefore imperative to analyse as to how this election was conducted, and how it answered to the requirements of ‘free and fair elections’,” he wrote.

Significant exclusion of disadvantaged groups from electoral rolls

The report has pointed to “significant exclusion” of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups from the electoral rolls. The section on “Electoral Roll and Exclusion of Vulnerable Sections from Voting”, authored by former IAS officers Harsh Mander and Venkatesan Ramani, refers to how circular migrants; urban homeless persons; transpeople; women (especially single women, widowed, divorced women), sex workers; stigmatised groups such as manual scavengers, Adivasis, Muslims, Christians in some constituencies; persons with disabilities; persons with mental illnesses and old people without care were among the groups that fell into this category.

The report says there is “no doubt” that many names do not figure in the electoral rolls, whether through mischief or oversight. It said the modalities for ensuring that these names are included need to be clearly spelt out. “It is obvious that the electoral rolls registration machinery has been found wanting in carrying out a door-to-door enrolment campaign,” they said.

Also, the report said while the National Voters’ Service Portal (NVSP) allowed downloading the electoral roll part, one needed to go through hundreds of names to locate one’s name in the rolls. It, therefore, suggested that some easier method of verification be devised, especially for the aged and the sick.

The report also said that migrant labourers, who work at places away from their place of residence, and people who because of their age, disability or illness were not able to travel to the polling station also faced issues in casting their vote. It said problems with electoral rolls should be mitigated to ensure complete transparency and public verifiability of all decisions regarding enrolment, updates and deletions.

The report also claimed that the ECI’s proposal to link voter ID with the Aadhaar card was a “very dangerous proposition” as it could lead to a massive data leak, fraud and theft that can severely endanger India’s democracy.

Electoral bonds increased opaqueness, role of big money in elections

The section on “Criminalisation, Money Power and Elections in India” in the report, authored by Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, has pointed to the enormous problems with relation to criminalisation and money power in Indian elections.

Referring to how the Centre had told the Supreme Court that between 2014-2017, 3,045 criminal cases, including heinous ones, involving 1,765 MPs and MLAs were pending, the report said “this continues to rise assuming alarming proportions.”

On the role of money power in elections, it said “it was the fountainhead of all corruption” as it “compromises the integrity of democracy in multiple ways: it raises the entry barriers to politics; excludes honest candidates and parties; leads to corruption and big money controlling the state; distortion of policy making in wasteful, inefficient, and anti-democratic directions and exacerbation of polarization.”

Indian elections costliest, BJP spends nearly 45% of all money

Further, the report said, despite opposition from the ECI and the Reserve Bank of India, the Central government used the money Bill route to bypass Rajya Sabha and introduced electoral bonds through the Finance Act, 2017. These, it said, only increased opaqueness and consolidated the role of big money in electoral politics, giving a huge advantage to the ruling party and destroying the level playing field.

“Total expenditure on parliament election-2019 is estimated at a staggering Rs 60,000 crores making it the costliest in the world, more than double of 2014 polls, according to Centre for Media Studies (CMS) … out of this amount the ruling party (BJP) spent close to Rs 27,000 crore i.e. 45%. This works out to Rs 89 crores per seat (303) won by this party,” the report said, cautioning that the fast-rising economic oligarchy in the country now threatens India’s position as a welfare state.

How the MCC tilts to favour the ruling elite

In the section on “Whither Enforcement of Model Code of Conduct?”, the co-founder of ADR Jagdeep Chhokar wrote that for the 2019 general elections, the ECI “deliberately delayed” the announcement to enable the prime minister to complete the inauguration blitz of as many as 157 projects that he had scheduled between February 8 and March 9. “It was the longest election in the country’s history, and its scheduling gave room for suspicion that [the ECI] had openly and unabashedly favoured the ruling party,” the report said.

It further referred to “some of the major controversies of MCC”. These, it said, included “lack of consistency by the ECI in enforcing the MCC; ECI treating the ruling party with kid gloves; ECI not using its powers under Article 324 of the Constitution.”

‘Abuse, misuse of armed forces a disturbing phenomena’

The report says the election commissioner who had dissented and stood his ground was eased out from the ECI. “This is a very critical issue because the major raison d’être of the MCC was to provide a level-playing field to all contesting political parties. Dealing with the ruling party with kid gloves negates the very reason for the existence of MCC,” it said.

The second report of the CCE also charged that a “most disturbing phenomena” in the 2019 election was the “abuse/ misuse of Armed Forces for election purposes by the party in power. Propaganda went the extent of calling Indian Army ‘Modi’s Sena’ causing anger among veterans. This forced a large number of veterans to write to the President of India that received no response.”

Writing the chapter “Media Helps Rulers While the Election Commission Looks the Other Way”, senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta referred to how at a time when the media landscape has undergone a major transformation with the “exponential growth” in the use of the internet across the world and also in India, a very substantial section of the mainstream and mass media in the country has become “excessively supportive” of the ruling BJP.

‘ECI ignored media violations, Namo TV went on air without permission’

The report said despite guidelines and codes, the ECI did not take note of the many media violations – particularly by the ruling party. “The most blatant violation was the opening of a new channel called Namo TV which continuously telecast speeches and events about the PM. Namo TV did not have permission from the I & B Ministry to go on air and did not comply with the regulations necessary to start a new channel,” it elaborated.

The report also charged that the ECI failed to curb fake news online before and during the 2019 elections. “Procrastination, silence and inaction characterized ECI’s responses even to serious violations of MCC, media code and guidelines by the ruling party!” it quipped.

‘ECI not using its powers to have free, fair polls’

The last section, on “The Election Commission’s Partisan and Controversial Functioning”, written by Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, dealt with the issue of the ECI not using its powers to conduct free and fair polls.

The poll body has “plenipotentiary powers drawn from Article 324 of the constitution of India to conduct free and fair elections”, but is just “not using these powers, because [election commissioners] are the appointees of the Government of the day and not through an independent process of collegium”.

“The case of one dissenting EC, who was side-lined and then eased out has caused irretrievable damage to ECI’s independence and integrity!” the report says.

Such inaction by ECI, the report said, “compromises the autonomy of the ECI and creates doubts about the neutrality of the CEC and the ECs, and consequently, the neutrality of the Commission itself. This poses serious danger to the fairness and integrity of not only the elections, but democracy itself”.

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