The 2019 Lok Sabha election will be remembered for multiple symbolic reasons, one of which is the role of the Election Commission (EC). Following the Bharatiya Janata Party-Trinamool Congress clashes during BJP president Amit Shah’s roadshow in Kolkata on Tuesday, the EC has curtailed the campaign in West Bengal citing Article 324 of the Constitution.
The Article gives the EC powers of “superintendence, direction and the control of elections” . So far, this Arcitle has been used for the cancellation, postponement of election or penalising individual candidates. This is perhaps the first time in India’s electoral history that such a step has been taken.
Besides truncating the campaign for the nine seats in and near Kolkata, which are seeing voting on May 19, the election panel also ordered the removal of two senior officers. The poll body removed with immediate effect two senior state officials in West Bengal - Principal Secretary (Home) Atri Bhattacharya and Additional Director General, CID, Rajeev Kumar.
The EC’s move has invited criticism from the Opposition parties which have accused it of bowing down to BJP pressure.
Questioning the decision to end campaigning in West Bengal from 10 p.m on Thursday, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury wondered if the poll body had set the time to allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address two rallies in the state.
"If a ban is intended for 72 hours, why is it starting at 10 pm tomorrow? Is it to allow the two rallies of the PM before that?" Yechury tweeted shortly after the EC's announcement. Modi addressed rallies in Laxmikantapur and Dum Dum in West Bengal on Thursday afternoon.
"The decision by the EC to stop campaigning a day in advance is not understood. The first thing being expected by EC was action against the lumpen elements of BJP and TMC for violence yesterday. Why has no action been initiated?" the CPI(M) leader asked.
The Congress on Thursday in a press conference said the Election Commission had lost its credibility and independence, and was “biased” it also demanded to review the process of the poll panel's appointment. The party stated that Election Commission had completely abdicated its Constitutional duty under Art 324 to ensure level playing field, besides negating the due process under Article 14 and 21 of India's Constitution."
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The timing of the move was also questioned by BSP leader Mayawati who said, “The Election Commission has banned campaigning in West Bengal, but from 10 p.m on Thursday just because the PM has two rallies in the day. If they had to ban then why not from Thursday morning? This is unfair and EC is acting under pressure” , while addressing a press confernece in Lucknow.
In Chennai, M K Stalin, president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) alleged that the EC had different set of rules for the "ruling party", apparently referring to the BJP, and the Opposition.
"Ban on campaign in nine constituencies in #WestBengal. The EC has one set of rules for the Opposition and another for the ruling party. Highly condemnable," he said in a tweet.
Referring to the vandalism of a bust of Vidyasagar, Stalin said the "BJP follows a typical pattern".
"The BJP follows a typical pattern. Vandalises Periyar statue in Tamil Nadu and (that of) Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in West Bengal," he said.
Amidst the political reactions to the move, questions are being raised over the institution and its role. The EC has received unprecedented criticism this poll season. So intense has been the debate over the role of the poll panel that leaders of several political parties have said the time may have come to change the process of appointment of the three election commissioners.
Previously the commission was in the limelight for having been “soft” on the BJP. In April, many as 66 former bureaucrats had written to President Ram Nath Kovind to express concern over the working of the EC which they said was "suffering from a crisis of credibility and endangering the integrity of the electoral process".
"The weak-kneed conduct of the ECI has reduced the credibility of this constitutional body to an all-time low," former bureaucrats said in their letter to the President. "Any erosion in the people's confidence in the fairness of the ECI has very grave consequences for the future of our democracy and we hope that the gravity of the situation will be appreciated by the ECI,” they had said.
These concerns are now assuming centerstage as the election season is coming to a close with the last stage of polling on May 19..
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