Last week, before the first round of voting in the general election, President A P J Abdul Kalam broadcast to the nation a very simple but heartening message: please vote in large numbers and vote positively for the candidate or party of your choice.
It was a heartening message and quite contrary to the cynicism that the media tries so hard to inject into the national bloodstream. In his own very distinctive way the President tried to reintroduce some of the ordinary decencies which we seem so anxious to abandon in our quest for cosmopolitan sophistication.
For an adult Indian to vote requires his or her name featuring in the electoral rolls. This, you would assume, is a fairly routine matter. Not so in India. As reports of the first round of polling trickled in from the districts, one thing was painfully clear: the electoral rolls are in a mess. From Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, states where the government machinery is fairly intact, came reports of large-scale deletion of voters' names from the rolls.
The scale of deletion was particularly large in Andhra Pradesh. According to a report in the Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle, 19.9 percent of voters had their names deleted in Prakasam district. The percentage of deletion in other districts was: Guntur 13.2 percent, Srikakulam 11.2 percent, Nellore 10.5 percent, Medak 10.9 percent, Vizag 4.5 percent, Ranga Reddy 2.9 percent and Hyderabad 2.8 percent. In short, lakhs of Indians were forcibly disenfranchised.
The scale of bungling is monumental and it is a national scandal. In Gujarat, two of our cricketing heroes, Parthiv Patel in Ahmedabad and Irfan Pathan in Vadodara, found their names left out of the electoral rolls. Yet, have we heard one contrite statement from Nirvachan Sadan?
Instead, the Election Commission has been quick to brush aside angry protests from both the Telugu Desam and the Congress. In Bangalore, the state election commission conveniently put the blame on politicians suggesting they should have alerted the EC earlier. Is that a credible justification? If political parties have lost grassroots contact, should ordinary voters be penalised?
In any case, responsibility for the electoral rolls rests with the EC and not with the state or central governments.
What is surprising is that the incompetence and ineptitude of the EC has not attracted more indignation. Political parties are understandably loath to make too much fuss because of a fear that the EC, comprising superannuated bureaucrats who don't like politicians top begin with, will turn vengeful and start issuing unnecessary show cause notices. But why was the media silent? Is it because the nuts and bolts of democracy don't interest a media that is primarily concerned with fuelling mass disinterest?
But the onus of ensuring free and fair elections rests with the EC. That is why it has been conferred exceptional powers. Unfortunately, in the guise of preserving the independence of the EC, we have ended up creating an unaccountable monster.
The EC is running completely amok. Its main task is to ensure a free and fair poll and it has been empowered by both the Constitution and the courts to do what is necessary to ensure the sanctity of democracy. What is necessary to be done depends on a combination of administrative rigour and good sense. It is the latter commodity that seems to be absent from Nirvachan Sadan.
The EC's priorities, it would seem, are quite warped. In this election, for example, the EC has decided that India Shining is illegitimate. I am not talking about some advertisements issued by government departments. I am referring to its strictures against the finance ministry for releasing details of improvements in direct tax collections. How do such statistics hamper free and fair elections? Conversely, why is it the EC's business to demand petrol and diesel prices be raised? The rationale behind some the EC' s recent interventions is utterly bewildering.
At this rate I would not be surprised if the EC takes it upon itself to find out the great mystery behind Rahul Gandhi's Cambridge degree. How, did he secure a M Phil when, by his own admission to the Returning Officer, he does not possess a BA degree? Of course, because it Rahul Gandhi, the EC will be a bit circumspect. Otherwise, its natural inclination is to pry into matters that have no bearing on the conduct of the polls.
The EC would love to play God for the period the code of conduct is in force. It would even love to set the ideological agenda. Its members derive a perverse satisfaction in getting their own back on politicians they spent a lifetime kowtowing to. They also bask in the glare of publicity so much so that many of their actions are dictated by the television cameras.
In the process the EC has forgotten why it is there in the first place. With turnout down, thanks to the inconsiderate choice of polling dates, and lakhs of people disenfranchised because no one gave a damn, it is time Nirvachan Sadan was exposed to a post-poll audit. The conclusions, I am afraid, will be deeply unflattering.
A possible remedy could be an addition to the code of conduct which would bar the three-member EC from speaking to the media and posing for the cameras. This would give them the time to get on with their real but unglamorous job. Denying the EC the oxygen of self-publicity will be good for democracy.