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  • People walk past the Election Commission of India office building in New Delhi, India.

    People walk past the Election Commission of India office building in New Delhi, India. | Photo: Reuters

Published 15 April 2019

The Election Commission of India is facing criticisms for being biased towards the ruling far-right government prompting bureaucrats to write a letter to the President. 

On Monday, after receiving innumerable complaints, the Election Commission of India (ECI) finally banned a far-right Hindu nationalist state chief minister from campaigning for three days to stop him stoking hatred between religious communities in a divisive election that will end next month.

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The ECI, a constitutional authority who is supposed to be neutral has come under criticism in the past few weeks for being biased in favor of the far-right ruling party BJP.

The Indian elections started on April 11 are underway. It will continue for six weeks. For the sake of free and fair elections, the ECI framed a Model Code of Conduct (MCC) which provided guidelines to the candidates and political parties.

According to the MCC, parties and candidates are banned from invoking religion and caste while campaigning, a limit on expenditure has also been placed.

But even after receiving a number of complaints of MCC violations, the ECI failed to act accordingly.

On April 1, the far-right Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked religion in a rally to attack main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi. The ECI did not act on the said statement but served notice to Mayawati, a Dalit (lowest caste of India) leader for appealing to the sentiments of Muslims for vote gain.

Recently, Maneka Gandhi, a federal minister from the BJP warned Muslims during a speech saying if they do not vote for Gandhi, she will not entertain any requests from them in the future.

Hate speech against minorities is rampant amongst the far-right candidates, however, no stringent actions were being taken.

Over the past two years, ECI has been accused of delaying election dates, even in state level, to help BJP. The delays have been used by the government to announce new schemes and development projects right before elections.

The far-right leaders have often used the Indian army to invoke sentiments during campaigning which is also against MCC but no actions were taken.

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To tackle this, a group prominent bureaucrats wrote to President Ramnath Kovind saying that the ECI was having a "crisis in credibility" moment.

People like former National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon and the former Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung were signatories of the letter.

The "misuse, abuse and blatant disregard" of the MCC by Modi and BJP was distressing according to the officials. The lack of action on the part of ECI was also highlighted by them.

The problem of excess spending by candidates are also hardly monitored.

"Black money and cash are an open secret in Indian election campaigns. Even when the election expenditure cap per candidate is $100,000 (Rs 7 million) this year, the actual expenditure often goes up to $800,000 (Rs 55 million). The ECI can't take action because it does not have an investigating unit to prove it," Major General Anil Verma, coordinator of the NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), said.

In the past, the ECI was known to be a strong independent body. In 1989 the ECI chief RVS Peri Sastri introduced reforms and stood his ground when Rajiv Gandhi, father of Rahul Gandhi tried to manipulate the election.

The government immediately tried to dilute the powers of ECI and its chief by making it a multi-member panel.

Another strong chief was TN Seshan who made sure of free and fair elections and a neutral ECI.

"In the 90s, TN Seshan was one Election Commissioner who showed how powerful the ECI is. In his time, political parties were afraid of the ECI, especially those parties that were known for booth capturing. It became impossible for them to continue as before," PDT Achary, former Secretary General of Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian parliament) and a constitutional expert told Al Jazeera.


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