The EC: A barren fig tree?

By Jan Arden

Trees in biblical times and texts have been used for their symbolism, if only through the trees of Life or that of Knowledge, the latter presumably an apple tree whose fruit was so explicitly forbidden. If we wander further in those texts, we might come across the oak tree as a powerful double symbol of strength and righteousness, an object of praise, anathema to “faint spirits” – those, who in our modern-day parlance, might crawl about and tender to their highest moral, administrative, political or constitutional duties, hoping that their errors, omissions, corruptions and failures won’t be hanging around their necks. For in our blessed island, the buck never stops anywhere, neither in the Saint Louis gate scandal, nor in the shocking stream of “affairs” since 2020 surrounding Health or STC emergency procurements, even in the tragic death of MSM agent Kistnen and still less, it seems, in the mysterious happenings surrounding voter bulletins disappearing or cropping up in the most unexpected of places.

As citizens, we are unfortunately not privy to which inquiries by our fabled agencies have even started, are ongoing, have been discretely shelved or are close to completion. Our scenery has few or no oak trees left but fig trees aplenty, these being symbols of prosperity, however acquired. Nobody wants to assume that these fig trees are barren, leaving only their dried-up leaves to mask a nudity that might shock large swathes of the population.

Whatever the past performances of the Electoral Commissioner (EC), and they were indeed respected here and elsewhere over several past elections, the EC, having recognised publicly, first the “glaring anomalies” leading to the Supreme Court-ordered recount in No. 19, then gross failings at that recount that he ascribes either to “human errors” or to criminal acts, the EC cannot pass the buck around, hide behind civil servants and gloss over his ultimate responsibilities in the maintenance of trust in our electoral system, respecting our beliefs that every vote matters. Recent reports from the press suggest that several “glaring” anomalies in Recapitulation of Votes forms of the type discovered in No 19 that led to its recount, might have marred election results elsewhere, in particular No.15.

Unless we are mistaken, these Recap forms are or should normally be in possession of the Electoral Commissioner’s Office hours after voting has taken place, and it is a tall order to accept that gross errors in summaries from individual voting rooms would not be identified by the Returning Officer when tallied into Recap forms and such “glaring” errors would have escaped the strict vigilance of the third level of control – the EC’s Office. The EC’s alleged refusal to testify under oath and be cross-examined in recount petition for No.15, is more than surprising as it might have shed determinant light on the curious practices and possibly more “human errors” or criminal acts that could have tainted results in No.15, as in No.19.

We will not presume what the Supreme Court decides on that EC stand, but it is obviously, for such a constitutional responsibility, a posture devoid of panache. It would have been a golden opportunity to stand up like the oak for truth and trust as founding pillars of free, fair and credible elections, rather than adopting, sadly and shabbily, a fig-leaf that barely fits the momentous occasion to clear the air for our tottering democracy and, accessorily, restore a personal legacy at the EC’s helm that has taken an unprecedented nosedive.

* * *

India: The cultural make-over

It will not have escaped even casual observers of Bharat under PM Modi, that having spent much of his first mandate delivering on a variety of BJP’s campaign promises, mostly on the economic measures targeting the poorest sections while giving credence to its unabashed nationalistic stance, the Modi-II regime in parallel to its economic development drive and despite the enormous Covid difficulties, has embarked on powerful symbolic initiatives to reconnect India with its own past history and culture, unfettered by what the former colonisers and the liberal press in the West would rather see.

To quote but a few, the recently unveiled giant statue of Vaishnavite Ramanujacharya, also referred to as the Statue of Equality, in Hyderabad pays tribute to one of South India’s revered spiritual masters, a philosopher-saint to millions, even an avant-garde environmentalist and a preacher for social freedom and equality. The unveiling last year of a giant statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat was a tribute to one of the country’s staunchest freedom fighters, largely downplayed or ignored during post-independence India. And so was the giant planned granite monument (currently a giant hologram) of Subhas Chandra Bose, which will fill the void left after King George V was removed in 1968 from the India gate in the capital.

More are coming, says the Indian PM as he plans to open other doors and windows on India’s long, rich and complex history, mostly neglected since independence. Not every move will go without its share of controversies, fuelled by his political opponents and liberal circles at some Indian and western media stations, uneasy that such cultural and historical iconography should have been left to underscore the BJP’s nationalist narrative.

Left or right of centre, their India view remains jaundiced, generally unable to apprehend PM Modi’s undoubted connect with India’s breathtaking cultural and regional divides and his two successive massive poll triumphs. The people must be wrong, deluded, uneducated, they chaff away in fashionable or radical-chic bourgeoisie circles, praising Arundhati Roy’s latest tirade or the NDTV huddle of bemused anchors while columnists who seem to have easy access to Princeton, the NY Times or The Guardian, will continue to warn in dire tones of gloom and doom, rivers of blood, if not the dark ages under PM Modi.

Others, like Sciences-Po researcher Christophe Jaffrelot, may be busy adding new chapters to his latest book, ‘Modi’s India’, pushing the strange line that democracy cannot somehow equate with majority rule, or if it does, even in such a diverse setting, then the majority must be uneducated plebeians. Such high-brow contempt in liberal circles for a country surrounded by hostile neighbours, constantly the butt of infiltrated terrorists, or for the common man’s democratic aspirations and inspirations goes down well in India’s own radical-chic circles.

In their deep discomfort, they ask where would India be without the Congress? PM Modi responded with some sarcasm but in a blistering political attack in both Houses of the Indian Parliament on the legacy left behind, for better or worse, by the venerable party, which says the BJP is now only a family-run shop with noisy dynasts having replaced old warriors. With important state elections under way soon in some key states, there is no doubt a considerable amount of political sword-rattling going on. But a key take-away we can all meditate on here is Modi’s assertion that the casualty of dynastic parties is talent, diversity and merit. These fly or have flown through the windows, leaving institutions to be manned tragically by flops or bumpkins. Don’t we wish we were not at that stage?

* Published in print edition on 11 February 2022

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