Poll panel dents itself by asking for gag on media. It should withdraw its plea to recover some of its moral high ground.
Any list of winners and losers in the just-concluded round of assembly elections will have to include in the category of losers a non-combatant who is, in fact, the referee: The Election Commission of India. A constitutional body that draws its mandate to conduct free and fair elections from Article 324, and has built for itself an enviable reputation for impartiality and a formidable cache of public trust, the EC has appeared all too pliable to political pressures amid a pandemic. In the poll aftermath, it continues to let itself down. By approaching the Supreme Court with a special leave petition against the oral and sharply critical observations by the Madras High Court about its superintendence of elections — the HC said, as a lament, that perhaps it should face “murder charges” — by complaining that they are “uncalled for, blatantly disparaging and derogatory” and then suggesting that “a line is drawn” so that they are not reported by the media, the EC shows unbecoming prickliness, and worse. It shows disregard for an open and democratic public sphere, in which, as the Supreme Court rightly pointed out, it is important for constitutional bodies to take criticism from other constitutional bodies in the “right spirit”. And in which the people have a right to know, and therefore the media has a duty to report, “the unfolding of debate in the court of law”, not just its final verdict.
Now that the elections are over, instead of running to court and protesting too much, the EC would do well to take a moment of pause and do an honest reckoning. It has invited serious questions from the beginning of the poll exercise. Its eight-phase schedule for the West Bengal polls seemed overlong, especially amid a pandemic, and the demarcation of phases and geographies appeared to favour the party that rules the Centre, the BJP. While elections were on, the EC made only desultory attempts to ensure that COVID protocols were followed by candidates and parties. As the COVID curve climbed steeply in West Bengal as in India — India crossed a daily case load of 1 lakh on April 4, and that number vaulted to over 3 lakh daily cases in a matter of days, registering 3,32,730 on April 22 — the EC ignored pleas by non-BJP parties to curtail the election by clubbing together its last few phases. It was only when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced cancellation of his election meetings scheduled for the next day to supervise the response to COVID’s second wave on April 22 that the EC, an hour later, in suspiciously me-too fashion, banned road shows and public meetings of over 500.
Trust in institutions, once earned, must then be maintained. That takes constant vigilance and work. The EC must know that the impression is growing of late that it has let itself go. In a time when a strong executive does not hesitate to weaponise its mandate, the independence of monitorial institutions is especially precious, and needed. The EC needs to act to retrieve and restore its hard-earned credibility. It should begin by withdrawing its self-indulgent and ill-conceived petition from the Supreme Court.
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