File photo: Election Commission of India. Photograph:( Zee News Network )
The Congress also said the time has come to review the process of the poll panel's appointment as it has 'completely abdicated' its constitutional duty and has given a 'parting gift' to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Election Commission's order curtailing the time period for campaigning in West Bengal drew sharp criticism from opposition parties, with the Congress accusing the poll body of losing its credibility and independence and wondering if the model code has become "Modi code of misconduct".
The Congress also said time has come to review the process of the poll panel's appointment as it has "completely abdicated" its constitutional duty and has given a "parting gift" to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With leaders of various parties openly attacking the EC over its order, Mamata Banerjee emerged as a "rallying point" for the opposition, as leaders like Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, M K Stalin and N Chandrababu Naidu stood behind her and the TMC chief thanking them.
Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the EC order curtailing campaigning in West Bengal by 20 hours is a "dark spot" on India's democracy and institutions like the poll panel.
In the first such action in India's electoral history, the poll panel on Wednesday invoked Article 324 of the Constitution to end campaigning in nine West Bengal constituencies at 10 pm on Thursday, a day before its scheduled deadline, following violence between BJP and TMC workers in Kolkata.
"The Election Commission has completely abdicated its constitutional duty under Article 324 to ensure a level playing field, besides negating the due process under Article 14 and 21 of India's Constitution," Surjewala told reporters in a blistering attack against the Election Commission.
"Time has come to review the process of appointment of Election Commission. Should it only remain an appendage to the ruling dispensation or is it a constitutional body which is so intrinsically important to our democracy that its appointment requires to be mandated and tapered through a fair, transparent process like in many other cases," he asked.
The debate, in his view, must happen for democracy to thrive and survive and the entire process of appointment of the Election Commission needs to be reviewed.
"Has the MCC now become 'Modi Code of Misconduct' to be applied to BJP's political opponents, with total immunity for the PM and the BJP president," he asked.
The Congress is a responsible political party and has never cast unwarranted aspersions on the actions of constitutional bodies, Surjewala said.
"But we are deeply saddened to say that Election Commission of India has completely lost its independence and abdicated its constitutional integrity," the Congress leader added.
"Modi ji's chair, the prestige and independence of the Election Commission and democracy, all three are now in danger on account of the actions that we have seen in the last 24 hours. People are the final masters in this country and when all else fails, democracy prevails," he said.
Rallying behind Banerjee, BSP supremo Mayawati accused Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah of targeting her as part of a conspiracy and said it reflected a "dangerous attitude".
Mayawati claimed the poll body acted under pressure of the central government.
Coming down hard on the poll body, she said, "It is unfortunate that the Election Commission acted under pressure of the Centre in curtailing electioneering in West Bengal while the prime minister could address two rallies today."
It is now clear that under the present Chief Election Commissioner, Lok Sabha elections are not being held in a free and fair manner, Mayawati charged.
The DMK in Tamil Nadu threw its weight behind the TMC.
DMK President Stalin alleged the EC has a different set of rules for the "ruling party". He tweeted, "Ban on campaign in nine constituencies in West Bengal. The EC has one set of rules for the Opposition and another for the ruling party. Highly condemnable."
National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said, "The BJP can team up with the EC in West Bengal, they can have a tailor-made campaign designed to fragment and polarise the electorate, they can have all their model code violations overlooked. None of it will matter because on the 23rd Mamata didi will sweep West Bengal."
Surjewala said instead of punishing the goons and hooligans of the BJP led by Shah, the Election Commission is punishing democracy, per se. It has created a fear psychosis by admitting ECI's inability to hold a free and fair poll. The order of the ECI is an "unpardonable betrayal" of the Constitution, he said.
Every citizen is questioning the independence, impartiality, objectivity and fairness of the Election Commission, he said and asked whether the Election Commission has become "a mere helpless pawn in the hands of Modi-Shah duo".
"Does the EC now take orders from the BJP headquarters rather than from the mandate of the Constitution," Surjewala asked.
"As democracy is under attack from the ruling BJP, time for EC to submit before people of India, instead of being stifled by PM Modi...," he said.
"... Wasn't EC's order aimed at solely giving a free pass to the two public rallies of Narendra Modi being organised today afternoon and evening at Mathurapur and Dum Dum? Can there be a more glaring instance EC's being muzzled into submission by the ruling party," he asked.