India's Election Commission buried under bias accusations as election looms
World / 8 April 2019, 08:21am / Krishna N. Das and Aftab Ahmed
New Delhi - Did Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi break election rules by addressing the nation on an anti-satellite test recently? Is it right to have a channel dedicated to the leader? Can the country's armed forces be called "Modi's soldiers"?
Ahead of a general election that starts on Thursday, the Election Commission of India (ECI) says it is swamped with hundreds of thousands of such questions and accusations of violation of election rules, known as the model code of conduct. Many are coming via ever-expanding social media.
"The commission will only move when there is sufficient material," said Sandeep Saxena, a deputy election commissioner, adding that social media and mobile phones often tell people of things immediately, which it takes the panel time to learn.
"We normally ask our own field functionaries," he told Reuters. "It takes 12 hours or so to establish, only then we go for action."
Opposition parties have accused the panel of being biased in favour of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which they say gives Modi an unfair advantage in the election. There is even a threat to jail commission officials if Modi is ousted.
The BJP denies special treatment from the panel, an autonomous constitutional body tasked with the smooth conduct of the world's biggest democratic exercise with as many as 900 million eligible voters.
The panel, which has a staff of 300 at its headquarters in New Delhi, the capital, and more in India's states, has said it is impartial and acting against the guilty irrespective of party affiliation.
But the model code of conduct has became a joke, said Tarun Kumar, an official of the main opposition Congress party, because NaMO TV, a recently launched television channel that broadcasts Modi's rallies live, as well as promotional material for the ruling party, was still on air, despite complaints.
"Everyday I think that the Election Commission has sunk to its lowest, only to be proved wrong next day!" said Yogendra Yadav, a political activist and former pollster.
The top complaints the panel has ruled on or is examining are a speech by the chief minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath of the BJP, in which he associated the armed forces with Modi by calling them "Modi's soldiers", the panel says on its website.
Adityanath has been warned against such statements in future.
The panel is also weighing a representation against this month's planned release of a biopic, "PM Narendra Modi".
Last month the panel ruled Modi did not infringe election rules with a national broadcast that India shot down one of its own satellites using an anti-satellite missile in a major space breakthrough. Opposition parties had accused Modi of trying to reap political benefits with the announcement.
Complaints against Congress President Rahul Gandhi focus on his allegations of corruption over a warplane deal struck by the Modi government.
Saxena, the panel official, said it had received more than 40 000 references and complaints on its mobile app since the code of conduct took effect on March 10, and had dealt with 99 percent, taking action in about 68 percent of flagged incidents.
In the past three weeks, the panel has probably received more than a million complaints through social media and on its app, said another official, who requested anonymity.
"The volume of work is huge. Procedures, which have to be followed, make us slow," he added.
"People have the right to criticise. We are doing the best we can to conduct a fair election. Some of our officers are working 16 to 17 hours a day."