For the First Time, India’s Elections Are Under International Scrutiny

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India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva Ambassador Arindam Bagchi had summarily rejected the “concerns” raised by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk over its electoral process as “unwarranted”, saying it does not reflect the reality of the world’s largest democracy. He boastfully claimed that many across the globe seek to learn from India’s electoral experience and aspire to emulate it.

In his global update to the 55th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Turk had voiced concern on the “increasing restrictions on the civic space–with human rights defenders, journalists and perceived critics targeted–as well as by hate speech and discrimination against minorities, especially Muslims”. Ambassador Bagchi dismissed these concerns and lectured that plurality, diversity, inclusivity and openness are at the core of India’s democratic polity and its constitutional values and “These are backed by fiercely independent institutions, including a robust judiciary, that aims to protect the rights of all.”

This was the height of diplomatic arrogance but did not deter the US and Germany from entering the fray.  The US, despite strong objection from India and its diplomat being summoned, has maintained its position. “We continue to follow these actions closely, including the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. We are also aware of the Congress party’s allegations that tax authorities have frozen some of their bank accounts in a manner that will make it challenging to effectively campaign in the upcoming elections. And we encourage fair, transparent and timely legal processes for each of these issues,” the US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said. Sebastian Fischer, spokesperson for Germany’s foreign office, said: “We assume and expect that the standards relating to independence of judiciary and basic democratic principles will also be applied in this case.”

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has strongly objected to comments from both these countries, reiterating that it was an internal matter. The MEA had also summoned senior US diplomat Gloria Berbena, who heads the public affairs section at the US Embassy, days after summoning the German deputy chief of mission, Georg Enzweiler, to lodge a strong protest against the German foreign ministry’s remarks on Kejriwal’s arrest.

And then the UN itself came in. In a press briefing, Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said, “What we very much hope that in India, as in any country that is having elections, that everyone’s rights are protected, including political and civil rights, and everyone is able to vote in an atmosphere that is free and fair.” Dujarric made the remarks while responding to a question on the “political unrest” in India in the wake of Kejriwal’s arrest and freezing of the Congress party’s bank accounts.

The MEA and its ambassadors are protesting too much without understanding the reality of India’s forthcoming parliamentary election. Let me quote the noted psephologist and political commentator Yogendra Yadav: “Here is a safe election forecast: 2024 is going to be the least free and fair national election in Independent India. We do not yet know if it will eventually turn out to be a seriously compromised election or a complete farce. Going by recent developments including the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, however, it seems fairly certain that this election would slide below the minimum threshold of a credible election. In this respect, we are sure taking a stride toward our immediate neighbours like Pakistan or Bangladesh and distant neighbours like Russia… It pains me to write these lines. I have been a self-appointed ambassador of India’s electoral democracy. I have defended, nay celebrated, India’s electoral process in the face of the usual Western suspicions and Eurocentric standards.”

I am also in the same league. I have been participating in and observing India’s elections for the past several decades and have been fiercely defending Election Commission of India (ECI) from attacks by vested interests. Except for the last five years or so when the ECI has been lying hermetically sealed and secluded from the citizens, I have been closely interacting with this constitutional watchdog. Till recently I would have held what Yadav had to say about India’s elections as blasphemy and adverse comments by foreign countries and Agencies as obnoxious. Not any more because for some time now I have been expressing serious doubts about the integrity of India’s elections while advocating international scrutiny to ensure that elections are free and fair. Recently an independent group of observers has been put together to undertake this task.

This move was propelled by the following posers and their response:

Do Indian citizens enjoy universal suffrage?

  • According to one estimate, millions of Muslim and Dalit voters were missing from electoral rolls across the country in 2019. There are similar reports of exclusion of Christians, as well as of internal migrants and the homeless.
  • Voters in Jammu and Kashmir, numbering about 10 million, have not had a chance to vote in elections to the state (and now union territory) assembly since 2018, denying them their basic right to take part in elections.
  • In Assam, ‘Doubtful Voters’ (Marked as “D-Voters” by the Election Commission of India), who number around 100,000 and are mostly Bengali-speaking Muslim, as well as the 1.9 million persons from different backgrounds excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), risk their right to vote being denied.

Is EMV voting/counting democratic?

  • The ECI has refused to address concerns about flaws with electronic voting machines (EVM) used in elections in India in place of paper ballots. The design and implementation of EVMs, as well as the results of both software and hardware verification, have not been made public. They have also not been opened to full independent review. Though Voter Verified Paper and Audit Trails (VVPAT) are now installed in every EVM, no paper slips are counted and matched to verify or audit the votes polled, or votes counted before making the results public. It also does not provide guarantees against hacking, tampering, and spurious vote injections. According to experts, because of the absence of end-to-end verifiability, the present EVM-VVAPAT system is not robust and therefore unfit for democratic elections.

Do Indian voters have real political choice?

  • Since it gained power, the BJP-led Union government has systematically targeted opposition parties, whilst it has sought to strengthen its hold.
  • Central investigating agencies have initiated a slew of criminal cases against opposition leaders. According to one report, 90% of all cases against political leaders since 2014, by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate, have been against those from opposition parties.
  • Between 2017 and 2023, the ruling party reportedly cornered an estimated $800 million of the $1.45 billion raised by all parties, via the electoral bond scheme (EBS). This was possible due to the opaque nature of EBS and the control that the BJP-led administration has on its operations.
  • There is evidence of brazen quid-pro-quo, arm-twisting and blackmailing by the ruling party and misuse of enforcement agencies while garnering these donations.

Are Indian voters able to make an informed choice?

  • The ruling party has monopolised the information space, to the exclusion of opposition political parties, and has deepened its already-expansive powers to control the free flow of information.
  • Indian media is increasingly concentrated in a few corporate hands and have been shown to have direct political ties to the ruling party. Their programming is also openly supportive of the ruling party and hostile to the opposition.
  • Pro-ruling party actors also dominate social media networks. BJP’s “IT Cell” has often been accused of deliberately stoking communal tensions and disseminating disinformation, under the protection provided by its top leadership.
  • Central government agencies have intensified their muzzling of independent media and fact-checkers, including through the use of anti-terror and national security laws.
  • Ruling party appear to have doubled down on religious polarisation for electoral gains. Direct calls to violence against Muslims and other minorities continue, alongside dehumanising rhetoric by influential leaders in online as well as physical fora.
  • Against a backdrop of a highly communally charged atmosphere that voters are heading into in the upcoming elections, the emerging threats posed by AI-powered deepfakes and other technology are particularly concerning.

Is the conduct of elections in India independent and objective?

Despite enjoying substantial powers, ECI has been wanting in its enforcement of existing laws, rules, and model codes to ensure free and fair elections. Allegations have included:

  • Pro-ruling party bias in its announcement of election schedule and dates.
  • Failure to strictly enforce the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), including guidelines against communal election speeches, particularly those conducted by top BJP leaders.
  • Failure to engage meaningfully with stakeholders, including political parties, on key concerns including integrity of electoral rolls and the lack of end-to-end verifiability in EVM-VVPATs.
  • Central to the ECI’s partisan performance is its lack of independence from control by the Executive. Recent changes to the appointments process give total control of ECI to the ruling party. This is a body blow to an already weak system for conducting free and fair elections, resulting in a very uneven playing-field for contestants. Recent hurried resignation of one Election Commissioner and appointment of two give further credence to fears that the General Election in 2024 will be conducted by officials subservient to the ruling party.

Now, an independent group will closely observe and monitor every aspect of India’s ongoing electoral process and will be issuing weekly bulletins and periodic reports. Here is the Baseline Report.

For the first time in its history, India’s elections are under international scrutiny. That things have come to such a sorry pass is a travesty for India’s electoral democracy.

M.G. Devasahayam is coordinator, Citizens Commission on Elections.

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Disclaimer: For the First Time, India's Elections Are Under International Scrutiny - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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