Seventy years have gone by since the first General Election in 1952, which makes it an important landmark in our electoral history. The seventieth anniversary, earlier this year, however, went largely unnoticed. Observing anniversaries is important as the focus automatically shifts to reflection, analysis and assessment of the past while determining targets for the future. In a democracy such events ensure public participation, generating greater awareness and ideas.
In this respect the statement of Mr Rajiv Kumar who took over as the Chief Election Commissioner a few weeks ago is timely. He said: “The Commission will not shy away from taking tough decisions and it would follow the time-tested and democratic method of consultation and consensus-building about major reforms.” To begin with, only a few days into the new role he announced that in order to enhance the voting percentage, especially among the migrants, the possibility of remote voting on a pilot basis would be explored. A committee is expected to be set up to examine the issue in depth.
Thereafter wider consultations with political parties and other groups would take place before a consensus is built. While such a measure would certainly take care of a large segment of the population who otherwise remain deprived of their right, there are other vital issues, whose enormity is likely to make a significant impact on the electoral level playing field, so essential in a democracy.
In 1950, after the promulgation of our Constitution when the Election Commission of India was constituted, our fledgling democracy was yet to show its mettle to a sceptical world. It is to the credit of the Election Commission that the body was not only able to lay a very strong foundation for the electoral system but also ensured that lessons were drawn from each of the initial hiccups and a dynamic process of electoral reforms, which is now the envy of the entire world, was initiated. During the last seventy years, we have progressed from a system of using multiple ballot boxes, one for each candidate, to the use of PICs, EVMs and VVPATs. The world has also since recognized the intrinsic strength of our electoral machinery.
According to an estimate, out of our population of about 140 crores, there are roughly 50 crore active social media users along with 60 crores having access to the internet besides an equal number of mobile internet users. With a growth rate of about 2 crores per year, we should be easily able to visualise the future scenario. The power of mobile in electoral politics has been well established since India’s first mass-mobile phone elections in UP in 2007 when Mayawati had swept the polls. Over the years the mobile phone has been used in diverse ways from facilitating social change to accelerating economic activity, in addition to having become the basic tool for communications. The significant role played by social media in the realm of politics is well known since the days of the Anna Hazare movement. With Facebook and Twitter figuring in one controversy or the other, it has become imperative to ensure a mechanism for addressing grievances and taking remedial measures. In this context, it would be relevant to mention the recent proposal of the Government of India to amend the rules for social media companies. After the IT Rules 2021 had been declared unconstitutional by several High Courts, the revised draft rules appear to be more broad-based. The goal is to ensure an open, safe, trusted and accountable internet for all Digital Nagriks.
It is hoped that the amended Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, would lead to better accountability towards users. At the draft stage itself, we need to reconcile these new rules with the election laws to ensure that the Model Code of Conduct as also other election laws are not violated by social media platforms during an election campaign. With the increasing corporatisation of the news channels, their close monitoring would be the need of the day during the relevant period. In this context the ECI in 2019 had stated, “in the era of the wide reach of electronic media in the country, it is impossible to block any matter being covered on electronic media in a specific area, state or constituency”. A situation of such helplessness on the part of ECI hardly does it any credit. Therefore, a solution needs to be found.
According to Section 126 of The Representation of People Act 1951, there is a prohibition on public meetings during the period of 48 hours preceding the conclusion of a poll. The provisions of clause (b) of this section – “display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television, or other similar apparatus” – lie within the ambit of this prohibition. On the other hand, it is often observed that while polling may be in progress in some constituencies, the TV channels continue to debate and show live coverage and conduct election-related processions, rallies and meetings. This is a clear violation of the law. Though the stand of the National Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) is supportive of the ECI, they cannot turn a blind eye to this blatant violation of the law.
In our Constitution, the chapter on Directive Principles has been greatly influenced by the provisions in the Constitution of Ireland. Though Ireland is a relatively smaller country, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland ensures that a moratorium on general election coverage comes into effect for 36 hours. During this period radio and television broadcasts are not permitted to carry any content that relates directly to general elections. In our country where elections are spread out over a considerable period of time and in seven to eight phases, such a blanket ban would be difficult but in consultation with the political parties, a consensus needs to be built for adhering to the provisions of the existing law, covering all news channels including social media platforms, in letter and spirit.
Paid news is another ploy which is often used to manufacture a tilt in favour of a candidate. The ECI had constituted district-level Media Certification and Monitoring Committees for detection and reporting on such instances, which was a good beginning; the problem has continued regardless. As the channels mushroom during an election season and with the added weight of social media, it is time for these committees to be strengthened and streamlined.
The ECI has already recommended to the Law Ministry that opinion and exit polls need to be banned. It would be only appropriate that the potentialities of all forms of media to bring in distortions are recognized and initiatives were taken to ensure free and fair polls on a level playing field which is integral to our democracy.