ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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A Vulnerable Election Commission

Is the ECI equipped to adequately address insidious forms of voter manipulation?


The health and preservation of democratic institutions in the country hinge on the outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Election Commission of India (ECI) is faced with the mammoth task of organising “free and fair” elections to save democratic institutions, including itself. The task is complicated because the manipulation of the functioning of some of these institutions has taken on new forms yet to be understood fully, and the ECI is at great risk of becoming helpless and eventually dissolving into partisanship.

In the recent row around the release of the biopic PM Narendra Modi, it seems that the ECI has maintained steadfast indecisiveness. A 10-part web series, “Modi: Journey of a Common Man” is also in the offing. Earlier, in 2014 and 2017, there have been similar instances of propaganda films eulogising Modi. Such films tend to show unqualified reverence towards Modi, but this hagiographic representation also garners support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), giving both the person and his party an exalted status. What prevents the ECI from taking suo motu cognisance of such gross manipulations? Does the model code of conduct (MCC) devised by the ECI take such voter manipulation seriously? And, if it does, how does it measure such manipulation?

The Modi campaign did not end with the BJP’s 2014 win; the Prime Minister’s addresses to the nation on important matters—not even once did his office call for a press conference or a debate—were always a performance, part of an affective campaign. Unlike its predecessors, the current government has done away with the alienating language of strategy or economics, and has managed to mobilise the language of the people and of the everyday to perform the function of manipulation in subtle forms. For example, when the Prime Minister shares his “Mann Ki Baat,” he refers to himself as a “sevak,” or a “chowkidar,” or breaks into tears on national television (tv) to seek validation for demonetisation, people feel compelled to empathise with him. Can such moral manipulation be quantified, when the people have begun to see the country, its problems, the question of its development, all through the lens of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government? That this “everyday” avatar of the government is a carefully crafted political strategy is not unknown to people. However, as long as they are able to identify their own crucial individual interests—whether in terms of religion, business, or morality—with those of the government, they are willing to overlook the undermining of constitutional values.

The ECI’s ineptitude at keeping pace with the scale of manipulations imagined and executed by the government machinery is now glaringly obvious, as it is simply left “looking into” matters: asking for details about NaMo TV, issuing a show-cause notice to Air India, seeking a response from the railway ministry, and shifting responsibility to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). A quick look at these and other institutions bypassing the MCC by various degrees only indicates the pervasiveness of “Brand Modi.”

The ECI’s conduct is beginning to look partisan, and doubts over the fairness of the ECI assume particular seriousness because there is unevenness of electoral competition. This unevenness due to the immense concentration of resources in the ruling party’s hands, and the party appears to be singularly focusing on a socially divisive and slanderous campaign. Even though the ECI has issued a show-cause notice to Yogi Adityanath for referring to the armed forces as “Modi ji ki sena” (Modi’s army) and has written to the President regarding the Rajasthan governor’s open call to re-elect Modi as the Prime Minister, these attempts by the ECI to implement the MCC are unlikely to have a deterring effect given the nexus of populism, religion, and capital that fuels the Modi campaign.

The lines between actual governance and rhetorical campaigning have been consistently blurred, allowing for the nature, sources, and quantum of manipulation to be deviously obfuscated. Can rhetoric be considered manipulation? Should the ECI be attentive to the activities of the film and TV industries and the print media? Recognising the diversification of campaign media is the first step towards addressing the rampant flouting of the MCC. And, the framework for understanding and addressing the various forms of voter manipulation must be fundamentally reimagined by the ECI.

Updated On : 16th Apr, 2019


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