ECI’s balancing act: How the poll body navigated legal challenges, scrutiny and battle of perception

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By Mahtab Ahmad

The Election Commission of India (ECI) has long been regarded as a cornerstone of Indian democracy, entrusted with the vital responsibility of ensuring free and fair elections. The 2024 general elections in India, one of the largest democratic exercises in the world, highlighted several areas where the ECI’s credibility and perceived independence were challenged. Even as the successful completion of the electoral process underscored the polling body’s ability to uphold democratic processes despite a barrage of challenges and logistical obstacles, intense scrutiny over the ECI’s independence and fairness underscored the necessity for ongoing electoral reforms to uphold the democratic principles that form the bedrock of the Indian Republic.

Election officials carry sealed electronic voting machines at a counting center in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, June 4, 2024. India on Tuesday started counting votes from its staggered, six-week election that was seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decade in power and was expected to give him a third term in office. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)(AP)
Election officials carry sealed electronic voting machines at a counting center in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, June 4, 2024. India on Tuesday started counting votes from its staggered, six-week election that was seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decade in power and was expected to give him a third term in office. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)(AP)

With over 900 million eligible voters spread across diverse geographical and socio-economic landscapes, the world’s largest democracy undertook a seven-phase polling process that tested the ECI’s operational capabilities and resilience. Conducting an election of this magnitude is no small feat. Ensuring the availability and deployment of more than a million polling stations throughout India’s diverse and geographically wide terrain constituted the first logistical hurdle for the ECI. From the frigid Himalayas to the deep forests of central India and the isolated islands of Andaman and Nicobar, the commission had to make sure that every qualified voter had access to a polling place.

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The use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) across all polling stations required meticulous planning and execution. It necessitated coordination with multiple stakeholders, including local administrations, security forces and transportation agencies to ascertain the functionality, security, and timely delivery of these machines.

Maintaining security during elections is a perennial concern in India, given its complex socio-political landscape. The ECI had to coordinate with central and state security agencies to deploy over three million security personnel to ensure peaceful and fair elections. Therefore, a crucial aspect of the election security plan comprised the deployment of paramilitary forces in vulnerable areas that were likely to see violence, insurgency, or sectarian tensions.

Despite its extensive preparations, the ECI faced numerous accusations ranging from allegations of bias to inefficiencies. Opposition parties accused the ECI of favouring the ruling party, alleging delayed actions on complaints against the leaders of the ruling dispensation and biased scheduling of the election phases to benefit the incumbents. There were numerous allegations of the ECI’s delayed or inadequate response to violations of the Model Code of Conduct, such instances included alleged misuse of government machinery for campaign purposes and inflammatory speeches by political leaders. The criticism prompted chief election commissioner (CEC) Rajiv Kumar to respond by calling the country’s election process and vote-counting mechanism “robust” as he dismissed the Opposition’s allegation that attempts were being made to vitiate people’s mandate by influencing officials and violating protocols.

Notwithstanding the CEC’s counter, in an era where the ruling party is often accused of exerting undue influence over institutions, it is imperative for the ECI to take decisive actions with promptitude to bolster its integrity and autonomy. Allegations of bias and favouritism often stem from opaque procedures and unexplained delays in addressing electoral violations. CEC Kumar admitted during a press conference on June 3 that the poll body was caught unaware by the fake narratives on issues such as faulty voter lists and voter turnout data, justifying the need for the ECI to adopt a more transparent approach by making its decision-making processes open to public scrutiny. This should include publishing detailed explanations for its rulings, timelines for addressing complaints and criteria for critical decisions like the deployment of EVMs and scheduling of election phases. A transparent approach is likely to mitigate suspicions of bias and build public trust.

One of the most significant controversies was related to the reliability of the EVMs. Some Opposition parties and activists claimed that EVMs could be tampered with to manipulate results. The ECI, however, stood firm, repeatedly demonstrating the robustness and security of the EVMs. The VVPAT system, which allows voters to verify their vote, was a critical component in addressing these concerns, although demands for 100% VVPAT verification added to the logistical strain.

Throughout the electoral process, the ECI had to constantly grapple with legal challenges. A batch of petitions demanding 100% cross-verification of votes with VVPATs or going back to the ballot paper system generated much political heat and public interest in ensuring the integrity of electronic voting. The Supreme Court gave a thumbs up to the sanctity of the process on April 26 — the same day as the second phase of the Lok Sabha elections, underlining that “EVMs are simple, secure and user-friendly” and that the “integrity of the electoral process earned over the years cannot be chaffed and overridden by baroque contemplations and speculations”. Days after this, another plea landed in the top court, seeking the immediate disclosure of authenticated voter turnout records as it argued that a delay by the ECI in publishing authenticated data on voter turnout for the first two phases had created anxiety among the citizens. The Supreme Court on May 24 declined to issue any directive to the ECI, emphasising the necessity of a “hands-off approach” given that the Lok Sabha elections are currently underway.

The ECI had to defend its actions and decisions rigorously to ensure the elections proceeded smoothly. The Supreme Court’s involvement highlighted the legal scrutiny the ECI was under, but the poll body’s ability to navigate these challenges without disrupting the electoral process further cemented its credibility. At the same time, the constant scrutiny and doubts about the security and reliability of EVMs brought to the fore the need for effective communication, which is crucial in dispelling myths and addressing public concerns. The ECI has sometimes been seen as reactive rather than proactive in its communication strategy. Regularly updating the public on its activities, decisions and the rationale behind them, besides leveraging social media, traditional media and public platforms to engage with citizens and stakeholders can help build a more informed electorate and enhance the ECI’s credibility. Publishing comprehensive audit reports of EVMs, conducting public demonstrations and taking corrective actions on any identified vulnerabilities will further reassure stakeholders.

The 2024 general elections witnessed a record turnout of approximately 64.2 crore voters, including 31.2 crore women, testifying to the ECI’s efforts in facilitating voter participation, despite numerous challenges. This significant turnout demonstrated the public’s confidence in the electoral process and the ECI’s capacity to manage an extensive and intricate operation.

While the political outcomes of the 2024 general elections have varied interpretations and consequences, the ECI’s role in successfully conducting the elections amidst such challenges has bolstered its credibility. At the same time, the ECI ought to strengthen its position as an unbiased defender of India’s democratic process by enhancing transparency, accountability, and autonomy.

The views expressed are personal

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