As CEC, Has AK Joti Undermined Poll Panel’s Image of Fair Play?
The last two days of the Gujarat electoral campaign have exposed two disturbing trends: the country’s chief executive being economical with the truth, and the Election Commission’s ostrich-like stand in the face of allegations of violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) by the party in power in the state.
Sanctity of the EC Under Threat
While a politician, fighting the Gujarat election with his back to the wall, may yet be pardoned for employing vitriol and falsehood, the conduct of an institution, which is a creation of the sacred Constitution, and to which the people look up to in the belief that it will do all in its power to ensure a free and fair election, has not been beyond reproach.
The Election Commission today is not only being perceived to have failed the very people which it exhorts to vote in large numbers, but also the institutionalised rules and regulations that govern the impeccable conduct of a democratic process.
On 13 December, when the BJP cried foul over the newly-crowned Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s appearance on television news channels, a day after campaigning for the second phase of the polls in Gujarat ended, the Election Commission took only about an hour to order that an FIR be filed against regional news channels for alleged violation of the MCC.
Congress Raises Questions Over the Integrity of EC
The alacrity with which the poll panel acted is in direct contrast to its studied silence and inaction when Prime Minister Narendra Modi brazenly took out a roadshow – his security and political paraphernalia in tow – after casting his vote at Ranip polling booth in the northern part of Ahmedabad. The prime minister, standing on the footboard of his SUV, flashed his inked index finger to the crowd-lined street, leaving nobody under any illusion about his intent – vote maximisation.
The Congress seized on this perceived violation of the MCC with spokesman Randeep Surjewala calling a hurriedly convened press conference and lashing out at the Election Commission, though his real target was the Chief Election Commissioner A K Joti, a Gujarat cadre IAS officer.
Surjewala did not mince words, describing the EC as a “puppet” in the hands of Modi and Chief Election Commissioner A K Joti “behaving as the PM’s private secretary”.
Reassurance Was Missing
As an immediate reaction to order an FIR against news channels, this time too the Election Commission acted with promptness. A TV news channel reported that an unnamed spokesperson of the commission countered the Congress’ charge by claiming it “is wrong to say that we did not give them an appointment (to lodge a complaint)”.
Surjewala’s scathing attack on the Election Commission did not move Joti to appear in person to allay fears and apprehensions that the poll panel has been more than generous to the ruling party.
While Joti, who held a string of vital bureaucratic positions in his parent cadre, including chief secretary and chairman of the ill-fated Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC) before being handpicked by Modi in May 2015 to be one of the three Election Commissioners, did not publicly quash allegations of being partisan.
There was no reassurance from him that the EC had done everything to protect democratic principles and safeguard the reputation of the very institution he heads. After all, the evolution of democracy also involves the parallel growth and increase in the strength of institutions.
There is nothing to substantiate the charge that Joti is besotted to the prime minister or that he purposely overlooked or carelessly downplayed the Congress’ charge that Modi violated the MCC by taking out a roadshow in Ranip. But the qualitative difference in the EC’s response to its action on 13 December and its glorious inaction in the wake of the PM’s Ranip jamboree leaves us with the disturbing thought that Joti and his colleagues at Nirvachan Sadan perceive fair play or respect for rules as much as the politicians in power do.
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