General Elections 2019 have finally come to a close but not without raising fire and storm. Our elections, months before they are even announced, grab international attention and admiration. The reasons are simple: they are always record breaking, jaw dropping and an unparalleled logistical challenge which the Election Commission of India overcomes every five years with precision.
My association with the ECI, first as Election Commissioner (2006-10) and then as Chief Election Commissioner of India (2010-2012), has given me diverse experiences. Elections bring back mixed memories, rewarding struggles and the professional satisfaction that comes with doing one’s constitutional duty well in ensuring free and fair elections.
When the 2019 elections were announced, I was shuttling between London and Stockholm on work cum holiday. It was certainly an inopportune time to be missing in action from the country at a time when the biggest election in world history was taking place. There was an unending stream of phone calls from television channels, news portals, newspapers and magazines with request for my views and comments. Skype and IPad came in handy. However, even after expressing regrets to 90 per cent of the people who approached me, I was quite a nuisance to my hosts. So, it was a relief to come back home in the middle of the long drawn exercise.
The last two months have been a trying time for me—the Election Commission is under unprecedented attack. It was a constant and painful dilemma for me: criticise the Commission, defend it, or keep quiet?
Then someone reminded me of Plato’s words, “I will put down your silence as consent.” The immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr. served to egg me on: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” This motivated me to express my opinion, though reluctantly, but as constructively as I could possibly do.
Ever since I demitted office, I have been a self-appointed spokesperson for the Commission, defending its every action that needed defending, in the absence of its own presence on social media. I refused at least a hundred requests by the media to comment on certain disturbing events that unfortunately became hallmarks of the 2019 election. On the few occasions that I was drawn into the debate, it was a struggle to phrase my opinion in a way that would not sound like an indictment of the institution that I was immensely proud to be a part of. I noticed the same predicament on the faces of three former Chief Election Commissioners who appeared on television.
In my first ever blog, I wrote on April 18 that the suspension of an IAS officer posted as election observer in Odisha for checking the helicopter of the PM was a missed opportunity to restore the Commission’s hard-earned credibility. It also didn’t do well for the PM’s own image. After all, both these institutions have been under the public scanner and have received a lot of criticism for a number of incidents that have taken the centerstage in these elections. In one stroke, the criticism against them would have come crumbling down and “equality before law” would’ve been demonstrated. But, much to my disappointment, nothing of the sort happened. On the other hand, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik’s dignified conduct, when the authorities searched his chopper, stood in sharp contrast.
This election was overwhelmed by the overarching influence of money power, hate speech, communalisation of politics, abuse of social media and the unconstitutional conduct of politicians openly flouting the Model Code of Conduct. And who did we find in the dock? Not the defaulting politicians but the Election Commission! Nothing could be more unfortunate. Reputations take years to build but moments to get demolished. I am afraid the events of this election will hang over the institution for years to come and haunt it.
Making democracy itself fit for the 21st century will involve sweeping reforms concerning campaign finance, social media, inclusive political representation and the depoliticisation of constitutional appointments. Over 40 reform proposals already remain pending for the past two decades, mainly due to political lethargy.
The 2019 elections are yet another reminder that we are a flawed democracy in desperate need of reforms. My dream for India is for it to become the greatest and most successful democracy. For that to become a reality, national interest must take precedence over petty political interests. My optimism has not waned despite some unfortunate events that have unfolded recently. The reason is that despite our historic ups and downs, we have managed not only to survive, but thrive. One can only hope that the 17th Lok Sabha will truly aim to work for the people of this country, and not disappoint the cause of progressive electoral reforms.(The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder—the Making of the Great Indian Election.)