OPN_190516 election commission of india-1558008729828
A view of Election Commission of India office, in New Delhi, Monday, May 6, 2019. Image Credit: PTI

The Indian Election Commission’s unprecedented decision to halt campaigning for national elections in the crucial state of Bengal a day earlier than deadline has eroded much of the fragile credibility the watchdog had left.

The context of the decision was alarming indeed: violent clashes broke out during a rally taken out by Amit Shah, the president of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in Kolkata on Tuesday. The clashes between the supporters of BJP and the Trinamool Congress – which rules West Bengal – soon degenerated into arson and vandalism, with a statue of revered Bengal Renaissance leader Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar being smashed to smithereens.

Instead of investigating to find out who was behind the arson, however, the Election Commission (EC) took the unprecedented step of curtailing poll campaigns in the state on the remaining nine parliament constituencies going to the polls on May 19. The EC’s action begs the question: If Bengal is in such state of lawlessness, why wait for another 24 hours before stopping the campaigns? Why not halt them immediately on Wednesday night? The befuddling decision certainly lends credibility to Indian opposition parties’ claims that the delay was to accommodate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two BJP rallies in Bengal on Thursday.

Bengal has emerged as the key battleground for the final phase of elections and understandably the stakes are very high – therefore the EC’s concern is legitimate.

However, its actions follow a pattern of such decisions right from the beginning of the elections. Religious hate speech, abusive and communal language against minorities, vile threats and brazen acts of vandalism and violence have all gone largely unpunished by the EC or let away with a mild reproach. It has indeed been disturbing to see prompt action by the EC mostly on complaints by the ruling BJP, while conveniently ignoring a majority of complaints from more than 20 opposition parties – with the result that the marathon Indian elections have devolved into a theatre of absurd in its final phases.

The Election Commission is duty-bound as a neutral and non-partisan watchdog and must ensure free and fair elections. But its actions this election season reek of partisan bias and raise severe doubts about its neutrality and fairness – an unfortunate scenario for the world’s largest democracy. Hopefully the EC’s actions for the rest of the electoral process – including the vote count and declaration of results on May 23 – will help restore the faith on its credibility.