Expert Speak India Matters
Published on May 17, 2016
Equipping EC to meet new challenges

Over the past decade and half, Tamil Nadu had contributed phrases like the ‘Andipatti model’ and ‘Thirumangalam model’ to the nation’s electoral dictionary and history. The May 16 election to the State Assembly this time has contributed a whole new term, namely, the ‘Tamil Nadu model’. It’s upgrading of terminology, but downgrading of electoral democracy across the country, and possibly to the rest of the democratic world.

The ‘Andipatti model’ of formula involved lump sum payment to individual voting communities and blocs within an electoral constituency to renovate a local place of worship, invariably a Hindu temple, or levelling a playground and providing cricket kits, to attract the first-time/new- generation voters. This was in addition to fast-tracking (shoddy) repairs and renovation in the local government school and hospital, roads and water-supply, which had anyway become the hallmark of any by-election anywhere in the country.

The ‘Thirumangalam model’ involved rupees in their hundreds and thousands, to the voters — and so very openly, challenging the nation’s electoral scheme and processes. It also evolved into a situation where rival political parties would share time, space and venue to pay the local communities together. In between, there were others like the ‘Kancheepuam model’, when ruling party leaders, including ministers, camped in individual streets and localities of an assembly constituency for days and weeks together, paying the voters for sitting at home without working and having a retinue of party cadres and government officials, to run errands for the people.

The ‘R. K. Nagar model’ in metropolitan Chennai beat them all, and mixed them all. It’s this that has been expanded to cover the entire State, all 234 constituencies. The efficacy of earlier experimentations was now on total display for all world to see — and watch on TV and the social media. What ministers and other second-line leaders were doing together in a by-election constituency, individual candidates showed they were capable of doing.

No marks for guessing. For every poll code violation by one side, there was 50 percent or less of the same by the other(s). The ‘competitive’ Dravidian poll politics had finally produced more than one claimant to be the ‘alternative’. They too could not be blamed for want of trying. But one more department, they proved that they lagged the expertise and experience.

One step ahead

The question now is this: Did the Election Commission do enough to check and reverse the flow, through the past decades, up to now? The thief always thinks and acts ahead of the cop, and the secret of policing successes lie in thinking the way the thief does but act like the police is empowered to do. There are procedural and process lacunae that are being exploited by everyone involved in elections — starting with political parties and candidates, but not ending there.

In context, the Election Commission (EC) this time deployed more ‘outside observers’, including expenditure observers, and para-military forces than any time in the past, that too for a state of the size of Tamil Nadu. At no time at their frequent interactions with the local media, did EC officials mention what these ‘observers’ had done on a particular complaint received from the ground.

Whatever the reason, it would look as if the observers were not even in the vicinity of the constituencies allotted to them, nor were they constantly going around the place, as they were supposed to be — ready for access, for any voter, any complainant, and to act on the spot. The law does not provide for the para-military forces to act independent of local civil police or civilian authorities other than in situations like naxalite/militant attacks — and rightly so.

But, all of it goes against the very spirit and purpose for which the observers, expenditure commissioners and para-military forces were deployed. That is to say, despite distrust in the local officialdom, the EC did not do enough over the past so many years and elections across the country, to ensure that the ‘outside observers’ actually functioned and reported, too, on events over which there were complaints. It should also now ensure that the para-military forces had a specific and enforceable role that does not contradict with their poll-time mandate and also does not clash with the civilian authorities.

This time round in Tamil Nadu, the EC also commissioned the services of income-tax officials specifically for monitoring money movement, and raiding parties, to send out an additional psychological message to parties and candidates, cadres and others. Together, they seized over Rs 100 crore, the highest poll-time haul thus far in any part of the country, including larger and richer states.

Yet, the question arises. Did the EC do enough? Could it have done better? The law provides for the model code to come into effect only with the announcement of the poll schedule, but the local media had begun reporting about massive cash-movement even weeks earlier. Even after the code had come into force, the EC did or said precious little on the cash containers, which the local TV media had reported with footage and political parties had lodged official complaints.

It was the kind of psychological boost that the TN poll process required to keep it clean, but the EC failed itself. So much so, even what otherwise the EC claims was a normal cash transfer by government-owned State Bank of India (SBI), but in abnormal circumstances, has raised questions, for which there are no answers. The IT sleuths deployed on poll-time work seem to be doing their work in a more organised manner, but their focus invariably seems restricted to ‘tax violations’ and black money, but not always and wholly linked to ‘cash-for- vote’ phenomenon.

Self-destruct mode?

The uniqueness of the TN polls this time is that the ruling party at the Centre was also among the vociferous critics, first of the other parties in fray, but later also of the EC officials in the state. It did not stop with the BJP leaders at the state-level, but even senior ministers in the Government of India, with power, authority and responsibility at the same time.

It could be simply dubbed as an expansion of an ‘institutional-destruction agenda’ and left there. But, Tamil Nadu has shown up the ingredients of a self-destructive electoral process, and in whose hand the ‘red button’ lies. The EC only has voice to bark, not teeth to bite. If the nation thus does not look up, read the signals and rectify the errors and for good, our democratic processes themselves could be on self-destruct mode sooner than later.

Even without it, it is becoming increasingly strained and difficult to preserve our democratic values, institutions and democracy as a whole. India does not require a failed electoral scheme to add to the woes, now or later. In the past, when other institutions were seen as failing the nation, or were going through a transition to the present, the EC too went through a transition — only to stand up and put democracy back on its feet, and as never before in the electoral context.

It requires a rehash of the electoral processes and reshaping of the EC, per se. The system cannot expect more from itself when it is manned by those that are otherwise held under suspicion. It means that the EC, which is tasked with the largest democratic task the world has ever seen, needs to have eyes to see, ears to listen, mouth to speak up — and teeth to bite.

The Election Commission lacks consistency and character owing possibly to lateral entries at the highest levels all the time, and excessive dependence on the governments at the Centre and the States, for their staff at all levels at all times. It can begin with expanding the base and scope of EC staff at all levels, starting with the Election Commissioners themselves, and going down to the Chief Electoral Officers (CEC) is the State.

For starters, the CEOs could be chosen from among the senior-most Chief Secretary rank officials, with fixed tenures and the authority of the High Court Chief Justice — to be replaced by EC cadre staff over the years. So, when a CEO speaks for the EC, he does not have to be anxious about having to return to the State service, and face the music. The EC also needs investigative mechanisms and prosecution powers, at least as far as the election period is concerned.

It’s not a tall task that Parliament cannot legislate upon, even if it meant a constitutional amendment. These are unlike other sensitive politician-centric issues on which the EC and a succession of retiring CECs have commented upon while in office and out of it. It’s the loose link still straining to hold our democracy together. What was/is seen in Tamil Nadu is only a sample, or the tip of the iceberg. India and Indians cannot afford to have our democracy and electoral scheme submerged in and by the iceberg.

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