No institution including the Election Commission of India (ECI) and no personality or office in a democracy can be beyond public criticism and debate. There have been occasions in the past when political parties have vehemently disagreed with the ECI’s decisions and found fault with its directives. Some of them have merely voiced their dismay, while others have accused the poll panel of lacking in neutrality and being influenced by the ruling party of the day. However, it is not often that a major political party holds a protest against the ECI and openly accuses the Chief Election Commissioner of timidity. By organising such protests, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has set a precedent of sorts. The party’s grievance is that the Returning Officer for the Varanasi constituency, where its prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi is a candidate, denied him permission to hold a rally in Varanasi city, citing security reasons. There may be some substance in its grievance as other leaders seem to have had no problem in addressing rallies at the same venue. However, it seems the party is protesting too much, as this one instance is not enough to conclude that the entire machinery of the Election Commission is acting with bias against the BJP and Mr. Modi. With just one round of polling left in the multi-phase exercise, Mr. Modi has criss-crossed the length and breadth of the country including Uttar Pradesh and addressed rallies without any such problem.
The words of its senior leader Arun Jaitley, that “timid men can dwarf high office” and “if you can’t provide security, don’t hold polls in the country”, may not be quite fair, considering the impressive way in which the Commission has held the mammoth democratic exercise over the last two decades without many complaints of rigging. Voter turnout has improved considerably over the years; people living in remote areas and from communities prevented in the past from voting by feudal overlords are exercising their franchise without fear. Carping at the referee for one unpalatable decision, even if it involves the party’s iconic contestant, may not be justified. One of the principal complaints of the BJP against the United Progressive Alliance regime was that it undermined institutions such as the CAG by its continuous attacks. The BJP’s outburst against the ECI would seem no different in its tenor. Parties should desist from unfair attacks that might put undue pressure on election officials. It is equally plausible that the BJP was merely being opportunistic and seeking last-minute electoral gains by playing the victim. For its part, the Election Commission should be more alert, closely monitor field-level decisions and deal with complaints against its officials with a greater sense of urgency.