Voters line up to cast their votes outside a polling station during the first phase of general election in Alipurduar district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, April 11, 2019. Image Credit: REUTERS

The crisis of credibility that has hit India’s Election Commission (EC) threatens to endanger the integrity of the world’s largest and most expensive election. Midway through India’s gigantic exercise of a seven-phase election, charges are flying thick and fast about the partisan and largely passive role being played by the commission in curbing blatant violations of the model code of conduct — mostly by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but also by the Congress and other opposition parties. The situation forced the Indian Supreme Court to intervene — although in specific cases and with limited impact.

As the watchdog and ombudsman of the electoral process, the commission is expected to carry out its duties without fear or favour. But as anyone familiar with India’s political landscape will tell you — that’s only in theory. In practice, the commission has never been quite immune to political pressure from the incumbent government — barring a few exceptions such as the reign of T.N. Seshan. This is not always due to the commission’s political bias but more due to the scope and proximity of the ruling party to influence the electoral process as well as the scale and complexity of holding elections in India.

This time, however, the charges are stronger and more visible. Divisive hate speech and communal rhetoric in election campaigns have largely gone unpunished, providing major political parties a great scope to polarise communities and spread social discord. Parties have been found to be wilfully crossing the line set by the commission and the model code of conduct, presuming that there will be no serious repercussions. A steady stream of complaints has resulted in either weak reprimands or belated action by the commission — thereby diluting the very rationale behind the action.

Of course, it’s not easy to administer elections in India — especially in an age where one WhatsApp rumour can trigger a riot or a false tweet can ruin a candidate’s political career. It therefore further raises the burden of expectations on the commission to deliver on its mandate.

Given that every poll conduct violation in a country as vast as India cannot be realistically tackled on time, it’s critical for the commission to record and hand out exemplary punishment in high-profile cases as a deterrent. It must also take allegations of partisan behaviour seriously and demonstrate that its conduct is beyond reproach.

The election commission is at the heart of India’s democratic foundation — it must uphold its role and duties to ensure free and fair elections.