As the Lok Sabha poll draws to a close, the Election Commission deserves a vote of confidence. Over the last two decades, the EC has been responsible for changing the story of Indian elections, turning the narrative away from widespread voter intimidation, fraud and violence to higher turnouts, greater security and transparency. Yet in the 16th Lok Sabha election, the EC has been tested to its limits. The scale of the exercise was unprecedented—stretched across nine phases, this was the longest general election in the history of independent India, and an overwhelming 81 crore were registered as voters. This was also a fractious and polarising poll. Given the odds, and despite instances of aberrations and headline-seeking by political parties, the EC has done a remarkable job of preserving its hard won reputation of being one of the most trusted public institutions in the country.
The EC’s pageant across the country has been one of the most heartening sights of these elections. Its job started with sifting through electoral rolls, simplifying procedures for registration and launching the systematic voters’ education and electoral participation (SVEEP) drive to get the voters out, especially among women and the youth. The commission continues to push for greater transparency, introducing a voter verifiable paper audit trail in 20,000 polling stations that would allow people to check that their vote was cast as intended and encouraging the public to watch live webcasts of poll proceedings. Vulnerability mapping, first tested in the West Bengal assembly elections of 2006 and then implemented in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, has helped monitor polling stations for possible violence.
At the same time, it is also true that reports of booth capturing in
Manipur, rigging and violence in West Bengal, poll boycotts and shootings in J&K seemed to be grim throwbacks to an older time. Even pockets of Mewat, in the capital’s hinterland, reportedly fell prey to rigging and booth capturing. And as campaign rhetoric touched new lows, hate speech, which had receded in recent elections, made a return. Candidates across parties gave in to their worst impulses, from the BJP’s Amit Shah to the SP’s Azam Khan. Sadly, the EC has not remained untouched by the polarisation that marked this most vicious of electoral contests. The last phase of the polls saw the unseemly spectacle of a political party, the BJP, mounting an offensive against the EC, accusing it of bias and