I have been involved in elections in India from the third general election for the Lok Sabha held in 1962 as a young magistrate and then in 1967 as a Collector. Then there was a gap. Since 1984, I have directly participated as a candidate in elections for both the state assembly and the Lok Sabha. And all the elections I have conducted and contested have been in Bihar and later Jharkhand - states known for electoral malpractices and violence. Let me confess that I have never seen an election in all my life like one taking place now in West Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has been in power in Bengal for ten years. It is natural for her to defend her turf and convince people to give her a third term. The Left and the Congress have over the years ceded ground to the BJP, which has now emerged as the main challenger to the TMC. They had won only three seats in the last election but during the intervening period of five years, they have used (or misused) their vast resources in terms of money and muscle power to position themselves as the real opposition in Bengal. And as always, it has converted these democratic elections into a war. The responsibility for conducting elections in India is cast upon the Election Commission of India which is supposed to be an impartial body. No free, fair and impartial election is possible if this quality of the Commission is compromised. Unfortunately, like all other constitutional bodies today, the Commission too has lost its elan and is not the body it was envisaged to be by the Constitution. Its impartiality has been seriously under question for sometime now and after the mindless action of a 24-hour ban against the Chief Minister of West Bengal, it seems to have lost whatever credibility it had.
This is an unprecedented step, even in the chequered history of the Commission. She has been punished for words and sentences uttered by her. I am not going into the details here. But the words she spoke are far less objectionable than the utterances of the Prime Minister and the Home Minister. I am aware of the fact that asking for votes in the name of community, caste, religion, sect or region is forbidden. But what happens when the Prime Minister goes to the neighbouring country of Bangladesh in the midst of elections and visits a shrine and temple of a certain community, returns to India, and openly tells that community in West Bengal of his exploits in Bangladesh? Is he not openly and unabashedly asking for their votes on the basis of caste? The 'Jai Sri Ram' invocation is a purely religious slogan which is freely used in election rallies by the BJP leaders to rouse the masses in order to garner their votes. Does it not amount to inciting religious sentiment? The Prime Minister and Home Minister openly incite the people to punish the TMC because it is encouraging minority communalism. Are they not, by making this charge, openly asking the majority community to vote for it? In the road shows of the Home Minister and other BJP leaders, people dressed as Hindu gods and goddesses can be clearly seen. Is that not asking for votes in the name of a particular religion? Or is it that these people are too high and mighty for the Election Commission to even consider suitable action against them?
Why did the Commission decide to hold the West Bengal elections in eight phases in the first instance? Was it not done to help the Prime Minister and Home Minister continue campaigning on an extended basis? In this day and age, when news travel fast and is mostly live, what was the reason for not stopping the Prime Minister and the Home Minister from campaigning on the days when polling was actually taking place? The PM did not visit Nandigram on the day of voting, but he was elsewhere in Bengal, and as the polling was taking place in Nandigram, he was telling his audiences that Mamata Banerjee had already lost the election in Nandigram. Was he not trying to influence the voters on the day of the poll through the live relay of his speech across channels? Such examples can be multiplied manifold to demonstrate that the Election Commission is very, very selective in its approach, highly prejudiced in favour of the ruling party and discriminatory towards Opposition parties. It is not a fair umpire anymore. The ban imposed on Mamata Banerjee will go down in history as a black mark on the face of the Commission, already considerably blackened by various acts of omission and commission, and also as a black mark on the democracy in our country.
The umpire has not only to be fair, he or she must be seen as being fair. This time the Commission has failed miserably in doing so. Earlier, it had stopped Mamata Banerjee from travelling to Coochbehar after the unfortunate shooting there by the CISF in which four people lost their lives. What does the Commission think? That after the Model Code of Conduct comes into play, the elected executive becomes functus officio in all matters of administration, and if there is a theft or dacoity somewhere, the Election Commission will take action and not the administration, including the elected representatives in the government? From what does the Commission derive its power? Not from the Constitution but from sheer creeping over-reach?
There is no provision for Election Commission rule in the Constitution, which provides for either popular rule or, in the case of states, President's Rule. Even after the Model Code of Conduct comes into operation, the jurisdiction of the Election Commission extends only to the District Election Officer, who happens to be the District Magistrate and those officials who are directly involved in election work. It is an abuse of the constitutional provisions for the Election Commission to take over the whole administration. It is high time the political parties and parliament applied their mind to the whole issue in order to bring some sanity into the system.
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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