Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally at Mau in eastern Uttar Pradesh on Monday, promising loan waivers to debt-ridden farmers, payment of sugarcane produce within 14 days and criticising the state’s ruling Samajwadi Party for not utilising funds provided by his government at the Centre to ensure round the clock electricity supply.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and his newfound ally in Congress scion Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, were busy slamming Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gorakhpur – supposed political bastion of BJP’s star campaigner and chief ministerial hopeful Yogi Adityanath.
Elsewhere, former chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati was busy slamming them all in her quest to return to power, after forfeiting the chair to Akhilesh in the 2012 Assembly elections.
These rallies were taking place while polling for the fifth of the seven-phased Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections was underway, in 52 constituencies of the 403-member Assembly. Voting is due in 89 seats over the next two phases, slated to go to polls on 4 and 8 March respectively.
The rallies were telecast live on various news channels. Modi, expectedly, hogged the lion’s share of the coverage since he continues to draw the maximum TRP for the channels, in comparison to the other three leaders. Viewers across the state were able to watch these rallies before heading to their respective polling booths.
Now take into account the fact that electoral rules imposed by the Election Commission (EC) clearly stipulate that all forms campaigning must stop by 5 pm the day before polling.
The EC, over the years, has made elections a dull and drab affair. In its quest to ensure free and fair elections – by eliminating bogus voting, booth capturing that used to be the norm until not long back – the EC has has not registered that elections are a democratic festival.
But have these measures effectively stopped last-minute campaigning? The obvious answer is no.
If Modi can promises relief to farmers in Mau, the relief should be available for the entire state, and not just for the regions concerned in that phase of polling. Similarly, promises made by Akhilesh, Rahul and Mayawati are also for the entire state, provided they remember and implement these after being voted to power.
This raises a serious issue: That campaigning does not stop in the stipulated time frame before polling gets underway. Realistically, it continues until the nth hour in this electronic and digital world. Modi was busy promising the heavens to Uttar Pradesh voters even as the polling entered into its last four hours on Monday.
It's a known fact that the maximum polling takes place during the closing hours, which often forces authorities to extend polling hours beyond the deadline, allowing those standing in queue at the closing hour to cast their votes. Is it not possible that these people watched the various rallies on television and were influenced by the last minute speeches?
This raises a pertinent question: Have the existing electoral rules become archaic, particularly after the mushrooming of various regional news channels? Do they not provide a ready platform to politicians to reach out to the last voter, by appealing for votes while addressing rallies elsewhere in the same state?
Tightening of electoral rules started when TN Seshan took over as the 10th chief election commissioner between 1990 and 1996. The entire country admired and is indebted to the self-proclaimed ‘Alsatian’. Though Seshan’s maverick style and tough decisions met with protests initially, they ended the era of bogus polling and booth capturing.
But those were the days when only a handful of television news channels existed and live coverage was expensive, if not unavailable. Those were the days when newspapers dominated the news segment.
Over the last two decades, news has started becoming more and more area specific. From the monopoly of national channels, we witnessed a growth of regional and then state-specific channels, and now we even has district or constituency specific channels. Whether they are profitable and who funds them are different questions altogether, but they end up playing the role expected out of them – of covering rallies live while the elections are underway.
The recent spurt of mobile-specific channels and streaming pose a further threat and raise questions about whether the time has not come to review these archaic rules, which prohibit exit polls but allow live coverage of rallies.
A voter in Punjab and Goa, states which went to polls on 4 February, has no way to know which way their fellow voters voted, until the last ballot is cast in Uttar Pradesh on 8 March.
Now this leads one to think, what is the way out if live telecasts or mobile streaming of such rallies pose the threat of influencing the last minute voters?
The best solution of course is to go in for same day polling for Lok Sabha and all state Legislative Assemblies. An approach advocated by the Modi government, though the reason given by it is that a party should not be in election mode all the time, since every year some state or the other goes for polls.
There is no doubt that frequent polls interfere with governance, as was witnessed when the Modi government met with failed protests of the opposition to present the Union budget on the first day of February instead of the customary last day of February this year.
The second solution, if same day elections in the entire country are not feasible, is to do away with multi-phased or staggered polling in bigger states like Uttar Pradesh. The idea behind staggered polling is better mobilisation and utilisation of central forces, crucial in putting an end to the rampant electoral malpractices of the years gone by.
If central forces are not available in requisite numbers, police forces of states from far off places can be used for election duty. For example, if Bihar Police personnel can have vested interests in the outcome of UP polls, it is unlikely that Tami Nadu police would have one.
Another solution can be an amendment in broadcasting rules and imposing a ban on live telecast of such rallies in constituencies going to poll on that day, or the next day, after official closure of campaigning.
Whatever be the solution, time has come for all concerned to review these archaic electoral rules as the very purpose of preventing last minute campaigning gets defeated with the television boom and constantly evolving technology.
It would be akin to a self goal if the autonomous Election Commission continues to turn its eyes away. If TV debates can influence voters in the United States of America, where they are held much before polling dates and usually make or seal the fates of wannabe Presidents, it would be foolhardy to imagine that live broadcast of these rallies do not impact and influence last minute voters in the world’s largest democracy.
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Updated Date: Feb 28, 2017 12:52:32 IST