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Well done, Election Commission

The Election Commission of India's strategy on the Bharatiya Janata Party's defiant communalism has succeeded brilliantly. The ECI needed to pick up the gauntlet when the saffron party challenged it and the electoral law with a venomous CD at the start of the campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. In asking the party to condemn the contents of the production while reserving the right to derecognise the party, it acted with firmness and reasonableness. In the end, the BJP, whose leaders quibbled and equivocated about the CD's contents and status right through the election campaign, was left with no choice but to come out with an unequivocal condemnation. The Commission did the sensible thing in turning down the plea that its powers should be used to derecognise the BJP as a national party. Invoking Paragraph 16(A) of the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order 1968 — which empowers the Commission to "suspend or withdraw recognition of a recognised political party for its failure to observe [the] Model Code of Conduct" — would have set a dubious precedent with uncertain legal and risky political implications. As the Commission itself has conceded, its power to derecognise a party has not yet been judicially tested.

The condemnation wrested from the BJP has come on the back of defeat in an Assembly election that was fair and wondrously free from the predicted violence and anarchy. This was a tremendous achievement in a State that has a voter base of more than 110 million, 113,000 polling stations, 403 Assembly constituencies, and an unenviable history of bogus voting. It was accomplished by a thorough verification and cleaning up of the voter list, tight control of the polling process, and 100 per cent coverage of the polling stations with central paramilitary forces. Such an achievement would not have been possible without a cohesive, well-knit, and independent ECI. There is nothing wrong in criticising the Commission, for example, when it overdoes campaigning restrictions or seeks to `ban' opinion and exit polls. But what must be deplored is the attempt by the BJP to undermine the institutional integrity of the body through a self-damaging campaign against Election Commissioner Navin Chawla for alleged bias towards the Congress. For the sake of even-handedness, it needs to be pointed out that before N. Gopalaswami — L. K. Advani's chosen Home Secretary who was appointed Election Commissioner by the National Democratic Alliance government — took over as Chief Election Commissioner, there was a whispering campaign about his political inclinations. In both cases, the branding has been shown to be baseless and irresponsible. The elections of the past two years — in Bihar, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Punjab, and now U.P. — have borne no evidence of any refereeing bias. It is ironic that during the campaign Mulayam Singh accused the Commission of being an agent of both the Congress and the BJP, and post-election he has blamed the ECI for his defeat. For argument's sake, it must also be pointed out that constitutional functionaries — be they judges, speakers, governors, or presidents — may come from different social and even political backgrounds and have their firm ideas and connections. The critical thing is that they must function with integrity, independence, and impartiality in high office. The three members of the ECI have certainly done that to the acclaim of democratic India.

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