The Election Commission intends to ensure an election that is ‘free, fair, inclusive, accessible, ethical, participatory, and also festive’. However, with growing sensitivity in a number of areas in the country, rising social media menace and political criticism over bias, it faces an uphill task in the upcoming months.
- EC has decided not to conduct the assembly elections in the J&K valley, highlighting security concerns as the reason
- Social Media is big on the Commission’s agenda as it brings in dedicated personnel and private partnerships to keep a tab on unfair practices
- 2019 Elections will witness VVPATs alongside the Electronic Voting Machines across the country with mandatory slip counts as the EC looks to end the EVM debate
- In a first, any candidate with criminal antecedent needs to advertize it three times during the campaign through print and TV
- Opposition parties have alleged controversy in distribution of polling dates in some states and criticized the timing of the announcement
On Sunday, the Election Commission of India announced the polling dates for General Elections to constitute the 17th Lok Sabha. The polling is scheduled to take place in 7 phases spread across 38 days from 11th April to 19th May 2019. The counting of votes is scheduled to be conducted on 23rd May with results will be declared that very day.
As per the press note from EC, 2019 will witness the longest polling period and register the largest number of voters in the country’s history. The total electorate is expected to be in the vicinity of 900 million which marks an increase of 84.3 million voters from 2014. This consists of approximately 15 million new voters in the age group of 18-19, a downfall from the 23 million in 2014. The electorate also includes 78,325 third gender/ others, 71,735 overseas electors and 1.6 million service electors. Arora said that 99.36% electors have EPIC cards with 23 states & UTs having achieved 100% Epic coverage.
The elections mark a roughly 10% rise in the number of polling stations at 10,35,918 compared to 9,28,000 in 2014, which Arora said is largely due to rationalization of polling stations which it undertook in the recent years. EVMs will be complimented by VVPATs across the nation, being the highlight of ECs effort to quash the EVM debate. VVPATs were tried in pilot projects in 8 of the 543 constituencies in 2014. The EC said that 23.3 Lac ballot units have already reached the destinations as per requirement along with 16.35 Lac Control Units and 17.4 Lac VVPATs.
Empowering the Voters
The EC reiterated its motto of ‘No voter left behind’ with a number of initiatives towards assuring large turnouts of educated and aware voters. EC aims to bring up EPIC coverage to 100% with the ongoing voter verification and information program (VVIP) and familiarize as many voters as possible with EVMs and VVPATs. It will provide a voter guide in vernacular/ English to every household. To remove confusion over names, EVMs will carry photographs of the candidates.
The Central Police Forces will undertake route marches and patrolling to enhance voter confidence, especially in the weaker and more vulnerable sections through targeted deployment in all sensitive constituencies. Arora said the EC intends:
“systematic voter education – essentially for dissemination, advocacy and communication to comprehensively increase participation in the largest festival of democracy.
To remove confusion over names and help voters be more aware of who they choose, EVMs will carry photographs of candidates
The highlight of EC’s emphasis on voter empowerment comes in the form of C-Vigil mobile app. Citizens can record and report any violations of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) by Political Parties to the Election Authorities from their mobile phones. The app was run on a trial basis in Bangalore during the Karnataka elections. It was later extended to the five subsequent poll-gone states where the EC received almost 28000 complaints in total. Other apps and online portals started by body to aid voters include Persons with disability (PWD) app, and Samadhan integrated web portal for citizen suggestion, feedback and complaints.
Emphasis on the purity of the elections
Arora mentioned that EC is now a step further in ensuring credibility of elections with the introduction of Eronet. Eronet is a pan-India monitoring system based in Delhi that enables authorities to constantly monitor health of electoral rolls throughout the country. The EC emphasized on sufficient deployment of CCTV surveillance and webcasting especially at critical and vulnerable polling booths. Control booths and complaint monitoring stations are set up with 24 hour toll free numbers. EC will be sending special observers of ‘sufficient seniority and experience’ to states and UTs with major security issues.
Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) will compliment the EVM in 2019 as the EC looks to quash the credibility debate.
With a series of well-publicized EVM related incidents in recent poll-gone states, EC has implemented fresh SOPs for EVMs and VVPATs. List includes GPS monitored last mile transportation, first level check (FLC), mock polls and 2 stage randomization. Currently the SOPs enforce a mandatory VVPAT slip count in one random polling station per assembly segment. In December last year, a number of parties voiced out to the Commission to increase the number of polling stations for slip count to ensure there is no rigging. Arora said that Poll Panel would take a final call on the issue after the Indian Statistical Institute submits a report on it.
New rules for Candidates and Political Parties
The EC called upon political parties and candidates to strictly adhere to the Model Code of Conduct. Arora stressed that any violation will be dealt with in the strictest manner. The scope of information to be revealed by candidates has been expanded to now include PAN number and HUF details. The proposal was accepted by Ministry of Law on 26th February 2019 and Form 26 has been revised accordingly.
For the first time, Candidates with criminal antecedents are required to publish such information in newspapers and through TV channels on three occasions during the campaign period. In another first of, the EC appealed to all parties and candidates to desist from using environmentally hazardous publicity material and promote eco friendly material for election campaigning. The Commission has introduced Suvidha app for candidates to obtain permissions and track status of nomination.
Tackling Fake News and Unfair Social Media Practices
A key new objective of EC in 2019 is to keep a check on unfair practices and propaganda on social media. The Model Code of Conduct will now also apply to content in social media by candidates and political parties. Media Certification and Monitoring Committees (MCMCs) have been constituted in all states and districts to deal with the problem of paid news, media related violations and pre-certifications of political advertisements on electronic media. Arora mentioned that at least one Social Media Expert will also be a part of this committee at each level. Candidates are also required to furnish details of their social media account at the time of filing of nomination and money spent on Social media will also come under the EC’s purview. Arora said:
“The EC plans keep close and stringent vigil for any content aimed at vitiating the electoral process or designed to disturb peace, tranquility, social harmony and public order.”
The EC has teamed up with the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), which has further collaborated with Facebook, Twitter, Google, WhatsApp and Share Chat to uphold the integrity and legality of political campaigns conducted on the platforms. The commitments include awareness campaigns for users, appointment of grievance officers for upcoming election, deployment of appropriate fact checkers to scan fake news, paid news and making advertisements and pages more transparent.
What’s fueling controversy?
Criticism on the delay in announcement
Earlier, the opposition had alleged that EC was acting at the government’s behest. Congress leader Raghu Sharma has alleged that the PM has forced the EC to delay announcing the polling dates. Congress’ Ahmed Patel and AAP MP Sanjay Singh took jibes at the EC saying it was letting the government campaign till the last moment using public money for government functions as pretence for political rallies, flooding TV/radio and print with political ads.
Congress leader Ahmed Patel questioned the EC and linked the LS Poll Dates with PM’s rally schedule
Earlier, Arora had already dismissed the claims, stating that the poll body’s intentions cannot be doubted. He clarified that the 5 year tenure of the 16th Lok Sabha is due to expire on 3rd June 2019 unlike 2014 when it expired 3 days earlier. In the press conference, He said:
“The life of the last Parliament was up to 31 May, this time it is June 3… (Don’t know) if 5 March has become an edict for all times.”
Opposition says Phase distribution favours BJP
The 2019 elections will be a 7 phase exercise unlike 2014, when it was spread across 9 phases. EC has decided to increase polling phases in several states which in earlier elections were concluded in one of two phases. Three states (West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) are scheduled to vote in all 7 phases while four (Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha) will have polls in 4 phases. The EC said that the elaborate exercise of diving the election in so many phases is for logistical and security concerns. However, for a number of political parties and analysts, the distribution of votes into various phases has raised doubts on whether the schedule spells out to give advantage to BJP. This has emerged as a major talking point. West Bengal CM and TNC Chief Mamata Banerjee came out in criticism saying:
“This seven-phase election is a BJP ploy to destroy Bengal. But the party will get a fitting reply. The Trinamool Congress will win all the 42 seats in Bengal. Voters in Bengal have seen several elections and are very intelligent, unlike what the BJP assumes them to be,”
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee lashed out at BJP alleging the phase distribution is a ploy by the ruling government.
Odisha’s ruling party BJD’s MP Amar Patnaik on Monday alleged that the four-phase election schedule for Odisha was devised to suit the BJP since it faces “bleak” electoral prospects in the state. Polling in Odisha was conducted over 2 phases in 2014. He said there is no logic behind holding the elections in four phases in a state as no big law and order incident has been reported. He further said that states such as Andhra Pradesh (25) and Gujarat (26) are being done in single phases but have more LS constituencies than Odisha (21). However, the allegations were in sharp contrast to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s response who welcomed the poll schedule. Odisha’s BJP Spokesperson Golak Mohapatra dismissed the allegations saying that BJD was only raising the issue as it feared defeat in 2019. In other reports, political analysts are wondering if spreading the schedule in the Hindi and BJP-dominant states over several days can help the bigger parties plan their strategy cautiously and gain edge over smaller parties.
Elections in J&K have a history of low turnouts, and the rising tensions in the valley are not helping the EC’s cause.
Jammu & Kashmir has witnessed extremely low turnouts in the recent elections. The state has been plagued with violent incidents since 2016 including protests against jailing of separatists, continuing NIA raids, the crackdown on Jamaat-e-Islami, the Pulwama attack continuing the conflict between forces and militants, and unrest over article 370 and 35A. The EC decided against conducting the scheduled assembly polls in the state along with the general elections to avoid a situation where maintaining law and order becomes difficult.
Political parties from the valley have come out in criticism, terming the decision a “himalayan blunder” and “a murder of democracy”. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah called out PM Modi for not handling national security properly in a series of tweets. In a similar sentiment PDP Chief Mehbooba Mufti expressed her disgust saying the decision confirms sinister designs of GoI.
The EC’ insurmountable challenge can be summed up with the fact that for the first time in the country’s history, voting in one constituency, Anantnag, will take place in three phases. Arora summed up:
“We will have to carry out three phases of election for just one constituency of Anantnag… so you can imagine how complicated it is.”
- Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora dismissed the controversy around the timing of the announcement saying the poll body’s intentions cannot be doubted
- The EC wants to empower voters with the C-Vigil app to keep a check on violation of the Model Code of Conduct by the Political Parties
- Jammu & Kashmir presents an insurmountable challenge for the EC which is clear it its distribution of polling into three phases in one constituency of Anantnag
- J&K Leaders have come out criticizing the central government for its inability in handling the law and order situation which has resulted in deterring the EC from holding state elections simultaneously with LSE 2019
Political leaders and analysts have raised questions on the polling schedule, alleging its design will help the ruling party maximize gains.