Struggle between image, reality

Election Commission of India
Last Updated 14 October 2019, 04:10 IST

Organising and conducting elections in India is no mean task. In the last Lok Sabha elections, the credibility of the Election Commission of India (ECI) came under the scanner for a variety of reasons, some of which are discussed below.

Never in recent Indian elections has there been such a bitter controversy over the role of the ECI. Even before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, 66 prominent bureaucrats, in a letter to the President, had expressed concern about the working of the ECI.

It may be recalled that the controversy commenced right after the election dates were announced by the ECI indicating that the elections would be staggered.

The negatives of a staggered election undoubtedly outweighed the positives. For example, the decision to have a four-phase election in Odisha, when it is normally a two-phased election, came as a surprise to many.

So also the decision to have four phases in Maharashtra. Hence, rightly or wrongly, many political parties argued that the staggered elections were meant to accommodate the prime minister’s announcement of sops.

Even on the issue of electoral bonds, the Narendra Modi government and the ECI took diametrically opposing stands when the matter came up before the Supreme Court. The differences revolved around whether it was necessary to reveal the names of the donors.

In fact, at that point of time, there were even rumours of a rift among the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora and Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa over the issue of violations of the model poll of conduct (MCC), which has no statutory backing.

There was much controversy over the internal functioning of the Election Commission and the cohesiveness among the three Election Commissioners. There were rumours that Ashok Lavasa had even stopped attending meetings pertaining to poll code violations, especially absolving Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah of alleged MCC violations.

Lavasa gave a dissenting opinion in at least four such cases. He has, on record, said that what matters is the restoration of the lawful functioning of the Commission.

Former CEC Navin Chawla was critical of the decision of the ECI not to record the dissenting views, which according to him was unprecedented. Present CEC Arora took the stand that the Election Commissioners are not expected to be templates or clones of one another.

Some analysts began to call the model code of conduct as the Modi code of misconduct. To protect the ECI from all forms of political interference whatsoever is also difficult.

ECI’s decision to curtail campaigning in West Bengal for about 20 hours stirred a hornets’ nest. This was done by invoking Article 324 of the Constitution which constituted a landmark decision in India’s electoral history.

The model code of conduct that took shape during T N Seshan’s time was meant to be an effective tool to deal with effective competition in multicultural and multi-religious India.

Its success since Seshan’s time was determined by the reduction of election-related violence, incendiary political hate speeches, voter intimidation and other forms of electoral malpractice.

Other potential dangers included the criminalisation of politics, use of money power, muscle power and the challenges posed by caste and communal politics.

During his tenure, Seshan appointed a large number of electoral officers to monitor these possible scenarios. He made the ECI powerful within the existing laws.

There was an expansion of the ECI’s activism and authority. Former prime minister Narasimha Rao had appointed two additional Election Commissioners to neutralise Seshan’s exercise of power.

The ECI should avoid what former Chief Election Commissioner T S Krishnamurthy has termed ‘avoidable controversies’.

The prevalent political culture reflects the extent to which the ECI can function objectively and impartially.

In the Indian context, the challenge is to ensure that the ECI, which is primarily entrusted with the task of ensuring free and fair elections, is able to function impartially and independent of undue executive influence.

One even wonders whether time has come to review the process of the poll panel’s appointment. In many parts of the world, poll panels are appointed through the collegium system or even by parliamentary committees backed up by parliamentary endorsement.

To absolve the ECI of being soft on the government of the day, perhaps requires a neutral system of appointment. This is a primary requisite in a robust democracy like India. In this sense, ECI is still a work in progress.

Integrity standards

There is no denying the fact that the ECI has a huge constitutional responsibility to ensure justice, fairness and impartiality in its functioning. Integrity standards ought to apply to all parties and contestants equally.

Elections, the way they are planned and conducted, provide an important expression of sovereignty and a way to advance democratisation.

The ECI should not remain a mere appendage of the central dispensation whichever government may be in power. The fact is the Election Commission is a constitutional body which is indispensable to the process of democratic consolidation.

The Election Commissioners have, over the years, given the ECI a strong sense of direction by fairly implementing the model code of conduct. The time has come to restore the confidence and credibility of the ECI.

The challenge is to align the interests of all the actors and stake holders in the electoral process, especially because elections are meant to provide continuing legitimacy to our political system.

Given these ground realities, the ECI is expected to be fiercely independent. However, a line has to be drawn between expressing displeasure with the working of the ECI and actually accusing it of siding with the government in power. It is a continuing struggle between image and reality.

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Faculty of Arts), Dept of Political Science, Bangalore University)

(Published 13 October 2019, 18:26 IST)

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