Navin Chawla, the then CEC, visited Kalpa village in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh on 1 July 2010. He wished to hear first-hand the experience of India’s first voter, Shyam Saran Negi, on 25 October 1951. (The polling had been advanced here before the winter snow shut this valley from the world.) A teacher by profession, Negi had been assigned polling duty but he told the polling officer that he wished to cast his vote before taking up the assigned duty. The officer agreed and Negi created history. He was honoured by the ECI in its diamond jubilee year. Chawla spent an exhilarating few hours with him as nonagenarian Negi went down the memory lane. Negi recalled:
I never missed casting my vote and participated in every election. I had already made up my mind for whom I was going to cast my first vote when I went to the polling booth, it was a festive occasion. There was a local band, a lot of music and noisy electioneering. But the ECI has now taken the ‘fun’ out of elections. No band-bazi, no festivity, no excitement, it seems to be like a funeral. What have elections been reduced to?
Restrictions of the ECI on election expenditures by a candidate in the fray have bleached the colour from Indian elections. Roads, lanes and by-lanes are deprived of bunting, flags and banners that used to give a festive feel to the exercise. The instances of colourful filing of nominations by candidates are losing their fanfare. The days have gone when candidates used to be carried out of party offices on the shoulders of supporters and taken to the office of the returning officers in a cavalcade of vehicles to file nomination papers. Young men often used to be paid to swell the strength of their accompanying crowd before and after the filing of nomination, cheering and shouting slogans. This show of strength at the outset used to be an important event to set the tone of the campaign and demonstrate the potential of the candidate to win. There used to be a buzz and crowds in the days following the nomination.
Then there used to be flags, pamphlets, handbills and posters which are mostly missing these days. The symbols of the parties used to appear on all available spaces, including walls on which murals were painted, street crossings across which buntings were strung and lamp posts and pillars on which posters were plastered. The absence of murals or wall paintings as promotional material for campaigns deprives towns and villages of their national festival look. Street theatres and vans with loudspeakers no longer roam the streets throughout the day blaring pithy messages. Giant cutouts too have vanished. It was in 2009 that stringent interpretation of the MCC such as the liberal use of public spaces was curtailed. While publicity materials could be put up fora political meeting, they had to be taken down within
an hour of its conclusion. Before the ECI imposed its stricter interpretation of the MCC, the elections were seen as cultural events as much as political ones.
‘Such organic forms have given way to more synthetic ones,’ remarked Mukulika Banerjee. There are cases A plenty of observers getting the MCC enforced strictly but there is no study to suggest that the idea of taking the colour out of polls has curbed the increasing use of money in electioneering. The ECI may smugly claim the creation of a level playing field in a bid to conduct free and fair polls through strict enforcement of the MCC which in itself is more a convention than a legality. It was initially drafted by an IPS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre in the 1950s. Known as Aachar Samhita in Hindi, it is a set of rules about what is permissible behaviour on the part of politicians and political parties during campaigning. It has evolved over the past seven decades and the rules have been further elaborated to include limits on expenses on campaign materials, the hours during which loudspeakers can be used and restraint on the use of public spaces for any campaign materials.
Election officials are granted powers to impose the MCC with impunity and impose fines even for a minor breach of guidelines. This led to a greater awareness of the ECI’s role in public life and also of its powers over politicians and parties alike besides civil servants and local officials. Little wonder, a palpable sense of nervousness and tension prevails for fear of breaching the MCC. The ECI claims to have achieved the desired objective in the wake of austere interpretations of the MCC, thereby, making the elections cleaner, quieter and a bit more transparent than they have been before. Election campaigns no longer leave behind a detritus of pamphlets, flags and banners in streets and public grounds. Mukulika Banerjee adds:
In 2009, campaigning lacked much of the colour and drama generally associated with elections. The general remark was: elections don’t have their usual colour; it does not feel like an election (Chunav mein voh rang nahin raha; lagta hi nahin chunav hai). Conversations that began by describing changes in elections, politics and politicians today would often turn towards the nostalgia of elections of an older time. In the past, there was palpable excitement over elections, women dressed in fine clothes, huddled in groups on bullock carts, singing festive songs, would make their way to the polling station. When they came back from voting, they would admire their freshly inked fingers and indulge in friendly banter. But now all this has disappeared. The excitement and festivity of elections was also swept away along with the buntings and banners. There were no party flags flying atop households declaring the political allegiances of the family nor street children being paid to sing and shout out the party slogans, the frequency of which were often enough to deduce which party was winning. Makeshift party offices, in particular in rural areas, wore a deserted look and it was difficult to distinguish them from the often-drab shops in their vicinity.
Candidates are careful not to cross what became an MCC Lakshman Rekha. The festoons and decorations were missing.3 The Supreme Court had already, on 13 April 2004, struck down Rule 7(3) of the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, which prohibited the broadcasting of political advertisements on television. However, it stated that any advertisement would have to be approved by the ECI or its delegated authority at least three days in advance.
Defending the decision of curtailing festivities, CEC S.Y. Quraishi said:
The overwhelming voter turnout (in successive elections) has also dealt a decisive blow to the unkind comment that the ECI converted an election festival into a funeral when it tightened the MCC and expenditure control provisions. The criticism that the ECI had taken the colour out of elections was misplaced. The real festival of democracy is when voters come out to vote in large numbers without fear, something that is now happening regularly.