The Elephant Does Not Need a Veil

Illustration: Anand Naorem

IN THE period between the announcement of election dates and the counting of votes, a state — or during a Lok Sabha election, the Union government — is for all practical purposes under the charge of the Election Commission (EC). Such is the fear of the Model Code of Conduct, of angering the EC and its army of officers across the country, and of being blackballed by the media for quarrelling with the umpire, that few parties and politicians take on the wisdom and whimsy of the EC.

Consequently, over the past 20 years, every Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) has sought to put his or her stamp on the election process. The original superstar CEC, TN Seshan, made campaigns less of a festive tamasha, cutting out the noise and colours — sometimes with civic sensibilities in mind, but often with the zeal of overkill..

His successors have perfected the art of exploiting the media attention and potential for power that the election period gives them. Rare is the CEC who steers away from television cameras, or does not hold forth at press conferences. Election schedules have often been extended and stretched beyond strictly necessary periods, or so the political class suspects. In 2004, the BJP-led government called an early election in the second week of January. By the time the EC concluded its marathon and counted the votes, it was the middle of May. The whole idea of a “snap election” had been negated.

This is not to say the EC does its job poorly. It remains one of India’s finest institutions, a model for the developing and even developed world. Its IT networking and real-time data access make it one of the best examples of e-governance capacities anywhere. Yet, every now and then, it does get carried away

The EC’s decision to ask for veiling of statues of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, and of elephants in the Ambedkar memorial parks she has built in Lucknow and Noida is a case in point. The elephant is the election symbol of the BSP, Mayawati’s party, which is seeking re-election in Uttar Pradesh. Will seeing the lady’s statues and random depictions of elephants really influence voters?

The questions could go on. Will passing a statue of Indira Gandhi cause people to drop everything and vote for the Congress? Will stopping by at a flower market on the way to the polling booth, and admiring the lotus, lead a voter to back the BJP?

Do elections exist to facilitate democracy or does a democracy exist to facilitate elections?

Consequently, should the Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi and the Rajiv Gandhi Airport in Hyderabad be temporarily renamed before elections? Should sale of cycles (the Samajwadi Party’s symbol) be discouraged, if not prohibited, within five square km of every election booth for a period of, say, 45 days prior to voting? The BSP has been attempting to make headway in Maharashtra. Should it succeed, will the iconic statue on Elephanta Island, a ferry-ride from the Gateway of India, be encased in tarpaulin sheets?

Admittedly, some of those hypothetical instances are unlikely to cross the mind of even imaginative CECs. Nevertheless, the point remains that the covering up of elephant statues in Uttar Pradesh is over-the-top and amounts to a waste of public money. It will go through and be implemented, as all EC firmans always are, but its logic will remain questionable.

There is a larger issue that merits attention here: do elections exist to facilitate democracy or does a democracy exist to facilitate elections? The EC is also at the cusp of a freespeech controversy. In Haridwar, Baba Ramdev has been served a notice for alleged political messaging at a yoga camp. This charge can as easily be made in Gujarat, against NGOs and civil society groups that campaign, in every election, against Narendra Modi and the BJP. How do you curtail such voices? Should the EC be even trying? It may just be overreaching itself.

Ashok malik is Contributing editor, Tehelka.


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