The office of the Election Commission of India in New Delhi
The office of the Election Commission of India in New Delhi. Image Credit: Reuters

Before India’s 13th general elections in 1999, the Election Commission of India (EC) took an initiative towards ensuring a level playing field for opposition parties in the election.

The EC decided that all recognised political parties would get an equal amount of time to have to spokespersons speak on state TV and radio broadcasters, Doordarshan and All India Radio, propagating their pitch to voters.

This may not mean much today in the age of media explosion, but the practice, still in force, needs to be appreciated for its intent. The idea is that the ruling party has a disproportionate advantage through public broadcasters.

This is in keeping with the spirit of the “Model Code of Conduct” (MCC) which ensures the government does not, for example, bring out new policies and programmes or take to public outreach and inaugurations during the campaign period. The MCC first started in the Kerala state assembly elections of 1960.

Free and unfair?

Today the revered Election Commission, one is constrained to say, is lacking the sort of initiative and drive that made it come up with equal time on TV and All India Radio, or the Model Code of Conduct.

India has long cherished its tradition of free and fair elections, but is this ethos still upheld? Tax and anti-money laundering enforcement agencies go after opposition leaders during the model code of conduct.

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As these agencies directly report to the central government, it would be in the remit of the Election Commission to order them to pause new raids, summons and arrests until the MCC is in force. As the alleged crimes date back years, the heavens won’t fall if investigations into financial fraud by opposition leaders and parties pause for a few weeks.

It would have been another matter if these agencies were genuinely autonomous and had been going after all parties with equal zeal. The way these agencies go slow in cases where opposition leaders join the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party make it clear the agenda is more politics than justice.

There is a chilling effect on opposition parties, where they are afraid to give their best to the election, afraid of winning, because the agencies will come knocking. Surely this does not make for a level playing field — “LPF”.

Playing on the home pitch

There are other ways the field is not fair to all sides. Private news media and campaign finance are two issues that need to be given detailed thought.

The Election Commission — or anybody — can’t tell the news media how they are supposed to cover the election campaign. After all, there is freedom of speech and freedom of press. In reality, we know that all kinds of pressures and incentives affect media coverage.

The EC came up with a solution for the state broadcaster, are there any solutions for the private media’s partisanship? Can the EC at least issue non-enforceable guidelines? If a news channel completely blacks out one party or one leader, and the channel has massive public viewership, surely we need to think about the level playing field.

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Rethinking campaign finance rules

Lastly, it’s not a level playing field if one party has several times the campaign finance of the main opponent. This is a simple problem to solve, but perhaps it needs legislation and may be out of the EC’s remit. Nonetheless, the EC could recommend that there should be curbs on what a party can spend on elections just as the EC places stringent curbs on campaign spending by candidates.

This campaign finance anomaly — curbs on candidate spending but no curbs on party spending — has produced other kinds of inequality in the political field. Independent candidates winning an election has become rare, partly because they can’t match the spending power of big parties. Lawmakers have become less influential as the party leadership with its unlimited spending power makes sure people think of the party and its top leadership, not so much about the lawmaker.

It is not enough for the Election Commission to pay lip service to LPF. It must act in decisive ways, showing some spine. The EC enjoys Constitutional autonomy and the Supreme Court has historically bowed before the EC’s wisdom.

The EC must use its powers to be a fairer referee to make sure the match is fairer. It’s not enough to say the EC smoothly organised the world’s biggest voting exercise. What happens between the announcement of dates and polling day is equally important. The story of Indian democracy only begins with the overwhelming numbers, it ends with the quality of the election exercise. A level playing field is non-negotiable for a high-quality election.

During the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Election Commission reprimanded Doordarshan and All India Radio for not giving equal airtime to all parties. That alone tells you how LPF is the toughest challenge before the EC.