The acknowledgement by the Election Commission in the Supreme Court that it is now aware of its powers after the court ordered the commission to act decisively against offenders, reduces the status of the poll panel to that of a minor in need of guardianship.
If there has to be a Supreme Court to handhold the Election Commission into doing things, it raises serious questions about the integrity and future of the commission, which is tasked with the most important job of holding free and fair elections in the world's largest democracy.
It was a pathetic sight when the commission claimed in the Supreme Court that it was helpless if candidates engaged in communal diatribe during their campaign speeches. Apparently, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi felt so irritated that he threatened to ask for the presence of Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora in half-an-hour's time.
The dressing down given by Gogoi forced the commission to act and issue strictures against Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, BSP leader Mayawati, the Samajwadi Party's Azam Khan and Union minister Maneka Gandhi for their provocative and communally-divisive speeches. The curbs restrained the leaders from campaigning for various periods.
It took less than 24 hours for the commission to change from intransigence into decisive action. But in those 24 hours, nothing had changed for the panel and no new rules were announced to expand the commission's powers. This means that the problem was not with the commission or its powers, but with those who were in charge of its affairs. This is in fact the crux of the problem. The Constitution has given the commission all the powers that it requires for the smooth discharge of its responsibilities. But there is problem in the exercise of such powers. It is naive to blame the statute for the problem.
It may be sheer coincidence that an NRI petitioner filed a petition in the Supreme Court calling for strict action against political leaders and party representatives spreading hatred on religious and caste lines through social media platforms and other forums; that the matter came before the chief justice and the Gogoi acted in the manner that he did. The petition had expressed doubts over the fairness of the Election Commission and wanted the court to direct the constitution of a committee headed by a former apex court judge to closely watch the poll process and check the fairness of the commission.
It is an interesting question as to what would have happened if anyone of these conditions was not met. Obviously, the offenders would have got away without any harm. The commission would have remained ensconced in its own comfort zone, doing nothing other than extolling the virtues of free and fair elections and making songs and drama to spread awareness about the importance of voting for the success of parliamentary democracy.
Some people are known to bring prestige to the office they hold, while some others drag down their office to their own level. We have had instances of both and the present dispensation probably fits the bill for the second scenario.
But we have had chief election commissioners like TN Seshan, who despite the failings of the system and his own tantrums at times, did so much to tame the unruly politicians and ensure more transparent and free elections. He caught the bull by the horns and effectively put an end to criminalisation of the electoral process. In north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, booth capturing was rampant and large sections of underprivileged people were never allowed to exercise their franchise. Polling day violence claimed a number of lives and polling was routinely suspended or deferred. Criminals enjoyed a field day during elections.
But Seshan changed all that. For the first time, the Model Code of Conduct, pinning down political parties and candidates to acceptable behaviour, became known for its observance rather than breach. The code itself was made more vigorous: The practice of party workers taking over the functions of the election personnel, such as distribution of voters list, transportation of voters and similar activities was stopped forthwith.
The Election Commission under Seshan also clamped down on the use of excessive money for elections, putting an enforceable sealing on the amount parties and candidates can spend in each constituency. It put the fear of law in the mind of politicians and political parties.
Over the years, a certain pattern emerges in the working of the poll panel: Its effectiveness largely depended on the persons heading it.
This meant that when the setup was under conscientious officers, the law took its course and everyone played ball. But at other times, things were back to square one. And that is a potentially dangerous situation. There is a strong case for reforming the selection of election commissioners, so that only the best men and women make it.
Election commissioners are appointed by the government and there is an inherent clash of interest there. Often, people who served the government as key officials, when made election commissioners, are unable to adjust to the independence that their new position demands and tend to show continued loyalty to their old masters. Such people become absolute misfits in their new role.
Luckily, the issue of finding a foolproof, independent and transparent system for the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner in now under the consideration of a constitution bench. Reports of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission and the Law Commission have underlined the need for the institution to be truly independent for the success of democracy and the rule of law.
During the hearing of a petition on the issue before a bench headed by Gogoi and including Justice SK Kaul, which referred it to the constitution bench in October last year, senior activist advocate Prashant Bhushan pointed out that when the provision for selection of the election commissioner was being inserted in the Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar had suggested that Parliament make a law for this.
Bhushan pointed out that while various election commissioners favoured a more transparent system of appointment and the politicians supported the idea, when they come to power they tend to be happy with the system under which the appointments were made by the Union Cabinet.
It was known that the prevailing situation left much to be desired. But the dramatic manner in which the vulnerability of the institution has been exposed in this week’s developments in the Supreme Court shows the need for great urgency as the issue at stake is most fundamental to the success of parliamentary democracy.
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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2019 14:29:03 IST