ANOTHER election is over but this column is not about winners and losers. It is about the match officials, the Election Commissioners whose unenviable job it is to see that not only are elections held but that they are free and fair. Admittedly, the EC has done adecent job in Karnataka, as indeed it has been doing from the time the ferocious TN Seshan was appointed Election Commissioner and was granted the autonomy that none of his predecessors enjoyed. But all good things must pass and even Seshan, aRottweiler among bureaucrats, was eventually tamed by the political class he set out to tame. Others came, most notably MS Gill, Lyndoh, and began by wielding the stick before deciding to put it away. Moral of story: when threatened, politicians sink their differences, close ranks and unite against acommon foe. The politicians’ task is made easier when the EC is amulti- member commission as it is now, comprising officers with brittle egos. To make matters worse, for the first time the Chief Election Commissioner, NGopalaswami, and ECs Navin Chawla and SY Quraishi are all from the IAS, which means the tussle has been on for quite a while. As of now, their varying ideological commitments mean they travel together, not out of camaraderie but to keep awatch on each other. Wherever they travel, the local administration is put to test, since it is their job to make separate arrangements for the three, all of whom carry the rank of aSupreme Court Judge. Poor locals cannot be faulted if they mistake the cavalcade of cars as belonging to afilm star out on ashoot in their remote hamlet. Politicians know their differences and that explains why the EC is now known more for its bark than its bite. In the last one year, the EC has slapped notices on at least 90 politicians for alleged violation of the code of conduct. They include Sonia Gandhi (Maut ka Saudagar remark) Narendra Modi (create mutual hatred between communities), Vir Bhadra Singh (using government vehicles with beacon lights), YSR Reddy (offering sops). Last week, yet another one was slapped on Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal for using government transport during his poll campaign in the last elections. Iam still to hear about even one of them being given even atoken punishment. Some like Badal get away by agreeing to reimburse the costs to the government, but how do you quantify the penalty for say, the “Maut ka Saudagar” remark, or Modi’s alleged communal appeals? Annulling their elections is apointless exercise since Sonia and Modi won’t even have to step out to campaign to get re- elected. So even if punishments aren’t handed out, it must be seen to be handed out. Therefore, the EC handed out a “displeasure” notice to Sonia last year while Modi was “severely strictured”. Crime but no punishment. The politicians know this and campaign in the manner they want to. Free and fair elections? You bet the voters are laughing.