India is going to have its least free & fair election in 2024. See these 5 indicators

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.

Sometimes, I was the official ambassador too. In 2002, when the Election Commission of India celebrated 50 years of India’s first Lok Sabha election, I was officially invited by the Commission to give a keynote address to the election commissioners from all over the world. I may have been a wee bit smug in showcasing the strength of the Election Commission of India, the vibrancy of electoral competition and the administrative miracle that is the Indian election. All that comes back to bite my conscience.

To be fair, this would not be the first instance of an Indian election that was less than ‘free and fair’. India’s largely clean record of electoral integrity has had its dark spots. Besides many isolated instances of electoral fraud in a few constituencies, I think of the assembly elections in West Bengal in 1972, Assam in 1983, and Punjab in 1992 as examples of elections that fall below the minimum acceptable standards of credible elections.

Most of the assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir (except 1977 and 2002) belong to this category, with the 1987 election being the most shameful instance of electoral fraud. But so far, no national election can be added to this blacklist. While the 1977 election was preceded by an authoritarian Emergency, once the elections were declared, everything, including the campaigning, voting and counting in that election, was free and fair. The outcome proved it. In the Lok Sabha election of 2019, the BJP enjoyed a massive structural advantage in terms of money, media, state machine and indeed the Election Commission. But the partisanship was within certain bounds.

A consistent decline
Those limits are being breached this time. As I typed these lines, an Enforcement Directorate raid occurred at walking distance from my house. The target: a local leader, the former assembly candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party.

I then glanced through the newspaper headlines: judicial remand for Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) leader K Kavitha in an ED case; AAP workers protest against the arrest of CM Kejriwal by the ED; Six Congress MLAs from Himachal complete their defection to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); the Congress party faces even bigger income tax penalty that can paralyse it; Yamini Aiyar, the CEO of Centre for Policy Research, is eased out following cancellation of the institution’s licence under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) and fresh tax demands; an outcry against an uncivil remark by Congress social media in-charge Supriya Shrinate followed by her apology, but only a faint condemnation and no apology for much worse remarks by BJP West Bengal leader Dilip Ghosh.

The next morning, WhatsApp updated me on the latest developments: at 9 am, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) announced its Mumbai candidate; at 10 am, he received an ED notice in a three-year-old case. A day in the life of what The Times of India calls the ‘Dance of Democracy’.

Anecdotal evidence and a few headlines are no conclusive evidence. So here is something more systematic. The International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IIDEA), an inter-governmental organisation, measures the quality of ‘representation’ (including the credibility of elections and freedom of political parties etc.) across 173 countries. Between 2014 and 2022, India’s score on this dimension of electoral democracy has fallen from 71 per cent to 60 per cent. In the last five years, India has slid from the 50th to the 66th rank.

Before you think it is another Western conspiracy, please check its website: India is one of the member states of IIDEA and is represented on the governing council by none other than Sunil Arora, the former Chief Election Commissioner of India appointed by the present government. Take another more academic and globally well-regarded Perception of Electoral Integrity Index. In its latest report, India scores just an average 59 per cent, which places it in the yellow zone below other functioning but seriously flawed electoral democracies like Brazil, Ghana and Nepal.

At this rate, the next year’s report following the 2024 Lok Sabha elections could place India in a sickly “orange zone”. That is why scholars who insisted that India may not be a liberal democracy but continues to be an electoral democracy are beginning to revise their opinions.

What we are still left with, finally, is the constitutional and legal architecture of elections that continues to be robust and fair. But here too some encroachments have begun. Although our electoral laws continue to be in line with constitutional principles, the operationalisation of the Citizenship Amendment Act just before the Lok Sabha elections indicates the first serious breach in the idea of equal citizenship.

So far what we have seen of the 2024 elections is enough to indicate that the continuous slide of democratic standards is headed toward breaching the minimum threshold of an electoral democracy. This may not be a complete farce as in the latest election in Russia or a fraud of the kind witnessed recently in Pakistan. Yet, it is clear that the arena of fair play would be severely circumscribed. We are moving toward a scenario where elections would be held regularly, but there may be nothing free except the pressing of a button and nothing fair except counting. If that.

Indicators of electoral credibility crisis
Let me break it down into specifics that could make this election the first instance of a national election in Independent India that fails to pass the basic test of electoral credibility.

First, we have reached the end of the era of the independent Election Commission inaugurated by TN Seshan. The inexplicable resignation of Election Commissioner Arun Goel and the hush-hush rush-rush appointment of two election commissioners to beat the possibility of the Supreme Court implementing its own judgment has made a complete mockery of the Election Commission’s autonomy. Not that anyone has ever accused Rajiv Kumar, the current Chief Election Commissioner, of any independence. Nor was there any reason for the ruling party to suspect Goel’s loyalty. Yet the last-minute packing of the Commission with two ex-bureaucrats known to be loyal to the present dispensation gives rise to a suspicion that they have been brought to do something that the incumbents were unwilling or unable to carry out.

Frankly, the EC’s independence is as much of a fiction as that of the Speaker of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas. The EC is now an election management body, merely an administrator of elections, as it used to be before Seshan. Worse, it could become an agency for managing the elections for the ruling dispensation.

The delegitimatising of the EC is related to the second signal, the junking of the rules of the game, the Model Code of Conduct. It is true that the MCC was never fully enforced and had been watered down systematically, yet the announcement of the election schedule and the operation of the MCC used to mark a boundary line that constrained the ruling party and the government. The arrest of CM Kejriwal and unabated raids on Opposition leaders indicates the beginning of a new era. Now the MCC will apply to the Opposition, not to the ruling party, save a minor leader or two. Yes, we do not yet stop Opposition candidates from filing nominations, parties have not been outlawed, voters are not mostly physically prevented from casting votes and there is no brazen and large-scale fraud during counting. But the large-scale intimidation of Opposition leaders in this election is already pushing us in that direction.

Third, the squeezing of campaign funding for the opposition. So far ruling parties tried to amass disproportionate money and discourage the donors from going to the opponents. For the first time, the ruling party is not satisfied with a staggering asymmetry in money power; the Electoral Bonds expose is just the white tip of the iceberg. The government feels emboldened to use legal means, that too after the declaration of elections, to prevent the Opposition from accessing its bank accounts. Clearly, this is no longer an electoral contest, it is a one-sided no-holds-barred battle for power.

Fourth, the core of the voting and counting process, the mystery of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). I need not dwell much on this here as I have already written on this issue. There is no consensus on this issue. But there cannot be two opinions that there are serious apprehensions about EVM manipulation, that it is the job of the Election Commission to address these and that the EC has done nothing on this front. Far from addressing the concerns, the EC has refused to give an audience to a delegation of the Opposition parties, despite the INDIA bloc passing a formal resolution on this issue. What made Indian elections exceptional in post-colonial societies was that the defeated parties always accepted the election outcomes. With this election, we may come perilously close to losing that minimalist consensus that sustains electoral democracies.

What we are still left with, finally, is the constitutional and legal architecture of elections that continues to be robust and fair. But here too some encroachments have begun. Although our electoral laws continue to be in line with constitutional principles, the operationalisation of the Citizenship Amendment Act just before the Lok Sabha elections indicates the first serious breach in the idea of equal citizenship. This has no electoral significance this time, but unless it is struck down by the Supreme Court, it opens the door for discriminatory voting rights. Similarly, although the Supreme Court has stayed the operation of rules that authorised the Press and Information Bureau the powers to take any “fake news” down, it has opened the doors for possible censorship in future.

But in one respect, an unprecedented breach has already happened: the recent delimitation of parliamentary constituencies in Assam has brought the American practice of “gerrymandering” — drawing electoral boundaries so as to favour a candidate or party — to India for the first time. Sadly, the Election Commission has legalised a brazenly partisan drawing of Lok Sabha constituencies in a way that can only help the BJP. This does not portend well for the coming national exercise of delimitation.

When the first elections based on universal adult franchise were held in India in 1951-1952, the White world was incredulous if not cynical. We proved them wrong by instituting fair basic rules of the game, mutually agreed norms, neutral and empowered referees, a level playing ground and strict protocols about counting. Indian elections proved to be credible and set the bar for much of post-colonial democracies. It would be a shame if we lose this hard-earned credibility, drowned in the din of sloganeering about the ‘mother of democracy’.