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Ballots and Betrayal — How the Election Commission is Failing Indian Democracy

Trust — it is what we have in a democracy. It is forged from goodwill and hope, not solely reliant on laws. Yet India's Election Commission's actions, purportedly within legal bounds, have shattered that trust, and forsaken its duties, particularly its conscience and allegiance to the Constitution.


Law enforcement agencies, all surrounded, did nothing to stop India's Prime Minister from giving a hateful speech and cracking down on opposition, raising concerns about the misuse of state machinery.
Illustration by Pius Fozan created with help from AI Image Creator

In the later years of Boris Yeltsin’s first term as Russia’s president, the economic chaos and his military campaign in Chechnya eroded his popularity. Once seen as a radical leader amidst the crumbling Soviet Union, Yeltsin harnessed the wave of new Russian nationalism. He stood as the inaugural president of Russia — elected by the people, not selected by the politburo.


By 1995, Yeltsin’s once-undeniable charisma began to wane. It cast doubts on his political future. Forecasts painted a grim picture for his re-election prospects. In a bid to salvage his position, he turned to businessmen, soliciting funds for his election campaign and propaganda efforts against his rival. In exchange, he promised them control over government-owned public companies. These businessmen wielded immense power, controlling two of the three major television networks, banks, and wealth beyond measure. Leveraging their influence, Yeltsin’s camp, with the assistance of the Central Election Commission. The Commission imposed limitations on airtime for Yeltsin’s opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, thereby, giving Yeltsin disproportionate visibility and creating a skewed playing field.


Yeltsin won.


In the years that followed, Russia witnessed the further disinvestment and auctioning off of thousands of public sector enterprises, often at prices far below their true market value. Giant oil and gas companies, along with banks, were snapped up by a mere handful of businessmen—just seven individuals. Meanwhile, for most Russians, putting food on the table became an increasingly daunting challenge. This transfer of wealth occurred against a backdrop where select politicians exercised absolute control over the government and its vast resources. It ensured that Yeltsin’s favoured businessmen ascended to become some of the wealthiest individuals on the planet — essentially, in other words, oligarchs. Russia’s fledgling democracy was effectively snatched away before it had the chance to take root, all under the guise of serving the motherland.


Fast forward 35 years, and Russia never recovered from it. In fact, Russia persists on this perilous path, and is controlled by egalomaniacal politician(s) whose amnesic nostalgia for the Russian empire has wrought havoc. Their misplaced nostalgia has pushed the country into wars, isolation, and profound tragedy, the repercussions of which may take years — perhaps even generations — to fully surface and heal.


Illustration by Pius Fozan created with help from AI Image Creator

This nexus of crooked politicians and oligarchs in Russia is a ditto template and runs a horrific parallel in today’s Indian politics. Here, the richest 1% amass a staggering 22.6% of the total income while controlling over 40% of the nation’s wealth. Meanwhile, despite claims of economic growth, the unemployment rate remains alarmingly high. The agriculture sector, which sustains nearly half of the population, is plagued by impoverishment and faces the heavy hand of a repressive regime. Unfortunately but not shockingly, 74.1% of Indians, approximately 1.043 billion people, were unable to afford a healthy diet in 2021 and over 800 million Indians rely on government ration vouchers or the public distribution system to secure their next meal.


Adding to the disquiet, the select businessmen funnelled disparate funds into the ruling party’s coffers illegitimate secretive electoral bond scheme to secure favours, as numerous reports attest. Like Russian oligarchs, select Indian businessmen also hold ownership of the television media which grants the ruling party — the BJP considerable face time to its prime minister and hence, unimaginable influence over public discourse. Meanwhile, every conceivable campaign spot across the country is inundated with BJP posters and saturating the visual landscape.


Further exacerbating the imbalance, newspapers and television networks, under the sway of these corporations, refuse to advertise the opposition party’s campaign, whose financial accounts are frozen by the Income Tax authorities. At any rate, the opposition struggles to mount even a modest campaign. Their ability to communicate with voters is effectively limited.


In a disturbing echo of authoritarian regimes, opposition leaders find themselves unjustly imprisoned, while the national broadcaster, DD News, conspicuously adopts a logo bearing an uncanny resemblance to the BJP’s saffron hue, particularly during crucial election periods.


All these are happening in full public glare: The Election Commission which is the force of nature during elections and becomes the de-facto institution — a custodian and representative of citizens to ensure that their right to vote is sacrosanct and is protected at all costs — the commission denies meeting requests from the opposition party, chooses to selectively address complaints against opposition leaders, secretly order Twitter to take down opposition’s tweets, and turning a blind eye to more serious allegations against the ruling BJP.


And when asked about the opposition’s concern regarding potential meddling with electronic voting machines, the Chief Election Commissioner found time to write and recite a poem during the press conference.


What a surreal display of indifference to the constitutional position!


Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, has transformed his party into a modern-day Napoleon and leads an assault on every constitutional institution and moral principle. Yet, among this onslaught, the debilitation and the coming out of the Election Commission of India as a maimed constitutional institution has jarred the last vestiges of trust.


Trust!
It is what we have in a democracy. It is forged from goodwill and hope, not solely reliant on laws. Yet, the Election Commission's actions, purportedly within legal bounds, have shattered that trust, and forsaken its duties, particularly its conscience and allegiance to the Constitution.

But the entire strategy of an authoritarian regime is to bend the Constitution to its will, to its knees, to infuse distrust in the system, and instil fear among the people so that they yearn for a messiah. A one-man show — not the state, not the Constitution, not the collective institutions, but one leader fashioned as the masculine messiah who promises better days, set to arrive in 2047 — 23 years from now. This messiah promises a “god”, an “Amrit Kal” — the great sullied mystery and secrecy to impoverished masses.


Secrecy!


It makes an institution, a leader insulated from accountability, and that in a democracy disables citizens. It is blasphemy and a crime.

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