- Is it not time to go for no-campaign elections here after?
- Do we need any more compulsions to consider “no-campaign elections” than this round of just completed elections for state assemblies, some by-elections and for local elections in some states? The kind of intense campaigns witnessed last few months with huge public meetings, series of rallies. Use of social media to plant stories and accusations of leaders against each other reminds the kind of poll campaigns the country had witnessed decades ago and that we neither learn nor interested in sorting out even known fallacies. These insights remind that it is time we consider alternatives to the kind of election campaign model that we are continuing as if more of the same is better and rely on primitive methods even more! What we had witnessed in an unprecedented way was blatant violation of codes, ignoring experts’ advice and even judicial observations.
- Damage to the basic fabric
Now that the results are out we can even conclude how futile all those efforts were and what the damage caused to the basic fabric and foundations of the country. Can we estimate the damage? Clearly, the campaigns were a wash out including the whirlwind ones by the prime minister, the home minister and half of ministers of union cabinet. Should we allow these practices remain the precedents for the next round of elections?
The Election Commission’s (ECI) approach now to the Supreme Court against Madras High Court’s observations a week earlier, brings out that ECI apparently lost out its focus and the very spirit of its constitutional existence. For it appealed to the Supreme Court to restrain media from coverage of madras high court’s oral observations. The two judges of that court, responding to the proceedings on a petition filed by a minister in the state govt. while the campaign to the assembly election was at its peak, that the Poll body was “singularity responsible” for a second wave of epidemic in the country and that “its officials should probably be tried on murder charges for not stopping massive poll rallies” of parties without following Covid 19 norms. Of course, the Supreme Court refused even to entertain ECI’ s appeal.
Observations of Madras High Court
The extensive way the Madras High Court observations were covered and deliberated across the country, brings out that these observations perhaps echoed general feelings about ECI s role in these elections. My own analysis too indicates that never before ECI had allowed itself unconcerned of its proven chequered record nationally. But I also think it succumbed under the weight of two incumbents, one of state and the other of the union with leverage of the apparatus, remotely and directly. Both with no concern for ECI or what it is expected to stand up.
The threat of the incumbents to free, fair and transparency criteria of elections was never before so obvious. Without sorting out this phenomena by political parties themselves neither ECI or the electoral democracy is likely to overcome the kind of signals being reiterated by global agencies about status of democracy in India. Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s outlook in this regard should have guided the leaders today. But then obviously they are not interested in setting good precedents. ECI too lacks a perspective . Its meet on 26 November 2020 should have considered this factor but there is no evidence on the contrary by having the prime minister for that meet with his “one nation, one election” swayed ECI. It did not even consider tech options to minimize perils of campaigns going wild and unconcerned of Covid codes. How could a govt. would have allowed a long drawn Kumbh Mela. Going by the spirit of Madras High Court’s observations, the incumbent leaders should as well be warned of the consequences.
Use technology to minimise campaign
Technology options to minimise campaign starting with nominations, alternative to public meetings and rallies were never considered despite there were earlier examples (of BJP) as in the context of Bihar assembly poll. Digital campaign or on-line campaign should have been viewed more seriously. Why campaigns, for example, public meetings could have used big screens and social media networks for leaders of different parties using the same platform. With the help of data bases and computerised systems already, ECI should have considered merging last three or four phases as demanded by all parties except the BJP. That would have been an opportunity to experiment further.
I always believed good waits to follow blatantly bad and vulgar. This round of poll campaign too offers such a hope. First, ECI’s reposition and reiteration of its independence from the incumbent party is urgent and in it lies the future of all parties. Second, limits of campaign were never brought out so vividly, compelling everyone to look for options and alternatives. Third, it is time to think of one poll but in one go not in phases. Only then an election could be ensured as free and fair. Fourth, “at what cost” poll campaign has to be a concern of parties and leaders. Fifth, polarisation in voting trends in this round revives two party possibility or at least bringing down the number of contestants and increase representative character of winners. Sixth, even more significant signal of this round is to think in terms of no-campaign elections. And that perhaps we need not wait fir 2024.
Need to strengthen ECI
Lastly, this round of elections for assemblies, some by-elections and panchayat elections in some states, reminds of strengthening and repositioning ECI, minimise incumbency phenomena, including restraining union ministers from going to campaigns outside their respective states, bring political parties responsible for claims and promises, revisit poll codes and make them as obligatory, why campaigns have to be solo and why parties come together and help voters make considered decisions, etc. The stakes are big for the country and for the basic issues to do with development and governance. These are compulsions now to deliberate. My forthcoming book in few weeks, “Next Big Game Changer of Elections, Poll Campaigns” discusses alternative campaign model that we should explore.
(Dr N Bhaskara rao is New Delhi based analyst of public policies and a pioneer on election studies and with insights of five decades.)