Election Commission: No longer neutral

In the 2024 campaign season, the ECI has chosen to wear blindfolds when it comes to India’s ruling party.

Published : May 11, 2024 17:36 IST - 7 MINS READ

Muslim voters at a polling station during the second phase of the Lok Sabha election at Meerut on April 26, 2024.

Muslim voters at a polling station during the second phase of the Lok Sabha election at Meerut on April 26, 2024. | Photo Credit: ARUN SHARMA

Muslims are apparently the people who will get reservation quotas and mangalsutras and buffaloes if the Congress wins. Imagine a cartoon sketch of a buffalo wearing a mangalsutra being stolen by a bearded Muslim male and a burqa-clad woman. That is the ridiculous visual image of the BJP’s rhetoric, shared with the nation by no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is being repeated again and again, and with great impunity in the ongoing election.

Enraged at the opposition campaign that the BJP could change the Constitution and thereby, by implication, take away the reservation for Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, the BJP has decided to counter-attack by suggesting that the sinister plot is actually to take away reservation from these sections of society and give it to Muslims instead. Never mind that the law does not permit reservation on the basis of religion and that there is no mention of any religion-based reservation in any opposition party manifesto. For there is nothing standing between falsehoods, hate speech, and an election campaign—the Election Commission of India (ECI) has chosen to wear blindfolds when it comes to India’s ruling party.

Oddly though, on the ground in Uttar Pradesh, it is not a Hindu vs Muslim election. In the third phase, it could be called a state vs Muslim election. The Prime Minister has remained pretty focussed on Muslims in his speeches across the country—possibly to remind the RSS cadre in this waveless election about their core ideology and probably also to generate an anti-Muslim sentiment and unite divided caste groups.

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In an interesting new diversion, Modi also suddenly suggested that the Congress was getting truckloads of money from Adani and Ambani. But he soon returned to his favourite 2024 election theme: Muslims. In an interview to a legacy media channel, broadcast just before the third phase of voting, the Prime Minister said in a very concerned tone: “I ask the Muslim community to do atmamanthan [introspection]. The country is moving ahead…. You are destroying your children’s future in the belief that you will seat and unseat those in power….”

Suppression of Muslim votes

There is a cruel irony here, for in a few seats of Uttar Pradesh, the first step to ensure that the BJP wins has been to suppress some Muslim votes. This writer has flagged the issue for some years now. My article, reporting such suppression of votes from the ground in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, was referred to in the paper titled “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy,” by Sabyasachi Das, an economist in Ashoka University. Das had to quit after the paper created a furore in 2023 and displeased the powers that be. One of the core issues flagged in the paper, a statistical analysis of some aspects of the 2019 results, was electoral manipulation through the targeted deletion of voter names from the Muslim minority. This was partly facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers, the paper argued.

The ECI building in New Delhi on May 2, 2024.

The ECI building in New Delhi on May 2, 2024. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

In 2024, we have many news reports that say this is happening in a deliberate manner in Uttar Pradesh. Besides the earlier cases I chronicled in Moradabad, there have been such reports from Sambhal, Mathura, Hathras, and Rampur, among the places in Uttar Pradesh that have already voted till the third round. The BJP domination of the State only began after 2014, when they swept the Lok Sabha election, and this was reinforced when they won the 2017 Assembly election on their own. The ideology of the RSS was in sync with the structural strategy of neutralising influential Muslims with a political base and, simultaneously, disenfranchising the community as much as was possible.

Beyond deletions, the other strategy in BJP-ruled States is to make voting a difficult process for Muslims in specific booths and constituencies. In Uttar Pradesh for instance, the State that rolled out the shameful bulldozer model, there have been charges of police making voting traumatic by frisking Muslim women or asking them to show Aadhaar cards even if they have an ECI-issued voter ID. In the third phase of voting, such scenes and complaints were reported from Sambhal, a seat where the Samajwadi Party is traditionally strong.

But the process of disenfranchising citizens actually begins when the panna pramukhs of the RSS start examining electoral rolls, booth to locality, to get a blueprint of where Muslims (20 per cent of the State’s population) live, and then seek to get their names struck off the list. It requires great vigilance from the citizenry and opposition forces to ensure this does not happen. The process that culminates in name deletion on electoral roles involves either the BLO (booth level officers) concluding after home visits that voters have moved, or is the outcome of applications that demand that certain names be deleted from the rolls as they are no longer voters of a particular locality.

All in the family: A BJP supporter holds cutouts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign by Modi in Bengaluru, Karnataka, on April 20, 2024.

All in the family: A BJP supporter holds cutouts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign by Modi in Bengaluru, Karnataka, on April 20, 2024. | Photo Credit: NAVESH CHITRAKAR

State government employees, who also double up as those responsible for updating electoral rolls, frequently do not make home visits and simply delete the names. Or they could be loyal to the ideology of the ruling party and obeying instructions that seek to change the electoral demography from the real demography. In August 2023, responding to a public interest litigation petition, the ECI gave a guarantee to the Supreme Court that names of voters would not be deleted without giving them notice. Yet, since there is proof that this continues with vulnerable sections of society (it also happens to Dalits and Adivasis), there should ideally be a campaign to fix the burden of responsibility on those who allow this to happen. We need to explore options of making this a cognisable offence. It is, after all, about protecting the very basic fundamental right to vote.

Nosediving reputation of the EC

The ECI was once a respected institution in the mind of the public. It has extraordinary powers after an election is notified, greater than that enjoyed by similar institutions in other democracies. Studies done in the past have shown the public reposing great faith in the institution that oversees the great exercise of voting. But its reputation has nosedived in the Modi years, for good reason, as has public faith in its neutrality.

Also Read | Election Commission’s rant against Kharge breaks many standards

First, the Modi regime changed the law in 2023 to ensure that the executive would have the majority in picking the ECI officers. Second, odd things have happened since the 2019 general election, continuing into 2024, when the ECI delayed sharing the aggregate polling data of the first and second phases of the election. Faced with criticism by opposition parties and civil society, it released the third phase data about voting percentages as per the rules in its manual. The initial delay to release the absolute numbers (against its own rules) flagged legitimate concerns and kicked off some conspiracy theories—although no one was very clear about how it could be done. But the ECI must know that to maintain public trust in the institution, it must be seen to be above board.

It certainly helps to have a pliable ECI when the dominant party of the day wishes to resort to rhetoric that amounts to hate speech under various sections of the law. In the past, the ECI and the courts have acted against milder examples of hate speech than what has been uttered in 2024, including against a figure such as the Shiv Sena founder, Bal Thackeray. In this election, a message would be sent if the EC just sends a notice to the Prime Minister asking why action should not be taken against him. That is unlikely to happen. And so, the BJP and Modi continue with the pincer move of stoking prejudice against Muslims on the one hand and stripping some of them of the basic right to vote on the other.

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.

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