The first phase of voting on Thursday to elect the 17th Lok Sabha witnessed enthusiastic participation of voters in 91 Lok Sabha constituencies across 20 States and Union Territories. In this opening phase of a total of seven, the challenges in ensuring a free and fair poll, as well as the trend of high enthusiasm among voters, have been highlighted. The drive of the Election Commission of India against malpractices led, ahead of the first phase, to seizures worth Rs. 2,426 crore of cash, liquor, drugs and other items meant to unduly influence voters. The ECI’s decision to ban the release of a biopic on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its order to stop the broadcast of political content on a TV channel meant for his propaganda were measures in the right direction. But the trail of serious violations of the Model Code of Conduct and the defiance of its previous directives by the ruling dispensation and Mr. Modi himself raise a lot of questions regarding the ECI’s effectiveness in being a neutral and fair arbiter. The questions regarding the integrity of the elections arising out of doubts about EVMs have been addressed with 100% Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails, followed by a Supreme Court-directed increase in their random counting rate from one machine to five per Assembly constituency/segment. But doubts arising out of the ECI’s conduct fall in a different category, and it needs to do more to reassure voters that the process is not vitiated by partisanship. The seemingly biased moves by Central agencies such as the Income Tax department targeting only Opposition leaders point to the possible misuse of office by the ruling party to target opponents. Mr. Modi’s appeal to voters in the name of soldiers — something the ECI had explicitly warned against — was unfortunate, as was the Commission’s failure to take prompt action. While the ECI must urgently respond to MCC violations, the government must act fairly.
Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and parts of Odisha also voted to elect their State Assemblies. Tripura and West Bengal topped in turnout, with 81.8% and 81%, respectively. This is the first general election with VVPATs attached to all EVMs. According to the ECI, 1.7% of VVPATs, 0.73% of the ballot units and 0.61% of the control units of EVMs had to be replaced on Thursday. Stray incidents of violence were reported in Andhra Pradesh, but in Jammu and Kashmir the polling went relatively peacefully. In the Jammu constituency 72% polling was recorded, while in the Valley’s Baramulla constituency the figure was 35%, marginally lower than the 2014 figures. Isolated complaints regarding mismanagement arose in some parts, but by and large the first phase went on well, and upheld India’s reputation in managing what is the world’s largest democratic exercise. It is going to be a long summer.