Tuesday, November 24, 2020
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Election Commission is setting a bad precedent, and it’s not good for democracy

Time has come for the election commission to act where it is required and withdraw from areas where it's not at all required.

Banning movies, books and leaders- institutional havoc may soon become a reality in India. I am not exaggerating and nor am I making a prediction, but it has been a case that India’s institutions have gone unchecked for far too long. Consequentially, they’ve started taking decisions that are not theirs to take and thus, they’re doing more damage than any good to the society as a whole.

The subject of my thesis was something very similar as I explored the costs associated with institutional overreach and I’ve written on multiple times since then, but this election season makes me want to highlight it yet again. Consider the biopic on India’s PM, Mr Narendra Modi. The movie was made by a private agent, it was funded through private money and the movie would have been released in theatres. Those who would have watched the movie would have done so with their OWN money. So, to watch or not watch the movie was a consumer’s choice and, in all likelihood, the movie would have been watched by those who are supporters of the Prime Minister and his party. Thus, by no stretch of imagination can we say that the movie would influence elections– why would anyone spend his or her money to watch a movie of a person who they don’t admire? And if they do watch it, then they must admire the person so how is it a problem?

What is unethical, is to use the pretext of free and fair elections and infringe upon the constitutional rights of common citizens. What is even worrisome is how this unethical infringement of rights is done selectively and conveniently. For instance, a senior journalist released a book on the Rafale controversy, and the book was sold at a nominal price. Mind you, Rafale matter is in court and the court had already given a clean chit to the government (The recent judgement only made new evidence admissible in court but the original judgement that gave the government a clean chit stands as before). The CAG too has found that the NDA deal was cheaper than the UPA deal yet there’s a deliberate attempt to lie and mislead the people on the Rafale deal. Despite that, the book was released and people bought it to read it. However, if a book is not going to influence the voters then how will a movie influence them?

In fact, if the criteria to ban is for it to influence voters then by that logic, TV debates, news (both pro and anti-government) and even NGO campaigns must be stalled during the election cycle. Why stop at this? Why not ban any discussion on elections or the likely outcome of the elections during the period? The question that one should be asking at this moment is where we draw the line and when will it be enough!

In this tendency to ban “information” we are doing a great disservice to the country and its voters. Essentially, we are withholding information that we believe could be important (as we think it would influence the voters) for the voter to take an adequate decision regarding their voting preferences. Is it ethical to leave the voter without such information given that the ideal situation would be to have well-informed voters who can elect good political leaders?

The story doesn’t end here, as the election commission has prohibited candidates (that violated the rules) for campaigning for a couple of days. An important question is if the ban is even implementable? After all, any candidate can always put out their tweets or connect with their voters digitally without a paid promotion etc, so it is no longer possible to stop a candidate’s campaign in the digital space. A far more important question is if the ban even works in ensuring electoral discipline? Of course not. A ban on campaigning that can only be partially imposed is a non-credible threat so people may continue to violate the norms if they believe that it would result in electoral success. This makes the entire episode of banning candidates nothing beyond a media exercise that will fail to resolve the key campaign problem of blatant violation of such rules.

On one hand, we’re trying to infringe upon the rights of citizens under the pretext of free and fair elections and on the other, we seem to be enforcing a punishment on candidates that will not ensure their compliance with the rules of the game. If this is not an absurdity, then I wonder what is.

Time has come for the election commission to act where it is required and withdraw from areas where it’s not at all required. A private movie should not bother the commission but the blatant misuse by candidates should be a cause of concern for them. It is time that we bring electoral reforms to ensure that the EC is equipped enough with enforcing a strict punishment for any campaign violation. Only when there is a credible threat will all candidates comply with the election rules- until then, it should stop banning movies and books and let private citizens enjoy and exercise their choice.

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Karan Bhasin
Karan Bhasin is a political economist by training and has diversified research interests in the field of economics. He tweets @karanbhasin95.

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