The Election Commission of India (ECI) is committed to conduct free, fair, participative, accessible, inclusive and safe elections to the Legislative Assemblies of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura, the Commission declared in a statement announcing the poll schedule in the three states on January 18.
Addressing a press conference in New Delhi, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Rajiv Kumar added another dimension – a pledge to ensure “ethical elections” while announcing the polling dates for the three states. Tripura is scheduled to go to polls on February 16, while Nagaland and Meghalaya will vote on the same day on February 27.
While the CEC did not elaborate further on what it means by ‘ethical elections,’ the operative words are listed in the Commission’s official statement pledging ‘free, fair, participative, accessible, inclusive and safe election.’ While the ECI’s announcement gives closure to the suspended animation of the state of affairs at the start of 2023, the road ahead is still laden with several challenges, including the call for the boycott of elections.
Assuming that such challenges are addressed positively in the coming days, the electoral process, described again by India’s top electoral officer as the “festival of democracy” needs closer scrutiny. More specifically, is it fair, free and participatory as supposedly projected by the high voter turnout in the previous elections?
For instance, Nagaland elections have always been marred by numerous reports (both alleged and confirmed) of aggressive vote buying, material and other incentives and obnoxious electoral expenditure while proxy voting is a common feature. Besides, it is besieged by the unique Naga practice of a 'consensus candidate' or 'citizens’ candidates,' which continues despite periodic reminders from the concerned authority.
However, elections in Nagaland, contrary to popular perception, seem to be an extremely frugal affair if one goes by the official disclosures from the candidates. Analysis of ‘Expenses made during the elections’ during the 13th Nagaland Legislative Assembly (NLA) in 2018 available in the public domain thereafter informed that 158 candidates combined hardly spent Rs 10 crore during the polls. Interestingly, none of the candidates crossed the Rs 20 lakh expenses per candidate limit set for assembly constituencies and each candidate spent only around Rs 6, 29,878, reported The Morung Express in April 2018.
However, another ‘independent’ report that came out in December 2018 presented a completely different picture. The ‘Post Election Watch report 2018’ estimated that over Rs 1061 crore were spent by candidates in 2018 elections. It comes to around Rs. 8890 per vote for 1182948 electors and each candidate, on average, spent over Rs. 5.41 crore, the report then estimated, adding that elections expenditures are ‘skyrocketing’ in each successive election. It further claimed that the average cost of each vote in Nagaland was Rs. 5000 to Rs. 10,000 while the highest average spent per household was Rs 75,000.
Such divergent data are symptomatic of how the official account of ‘free and fair’ elections often differs from ground realities. There were several reported and anecdotal evidence of electoral malpractices during the 2018 election. However, the buck stops on the day of polling with the electoral official terming elections as ‘by and large peaceful’ and successful backed by a high voting percentage.
While the CEC Rajiv Bhatia maintained during the Wednesday press conference claimed that the Commission has responded to almost all state-specific issues raised during its recent visits to the poll-going states and measures have been put in place as per contextual and felt requirements of each state, it remains to be seen how far such measures are executed on the ground.
More importantly, as long as issues cited above, which are just snapshot of multi-faceted challenges, are dealt with comprehensively pre and post-elections, the idea of ethical elections will just remain an idealistic theoretical framework in Nagaland, devoid of any practical applicability.
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