Change the way poll commissioners are appointed

Change the way poll commissioners are appointed

India is recognised as the world’s largest democracy. But it is extremely doubtful that citizens actually believe they have a rule “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Our claim to being a democracy is largely based on the fact that we have a reasonably fair system of elections, by which we have been able to elect our representatives at various levels. By this process, we have been able to change leaders and governments. The execution and monitoring of these elections and their integrity are largely dependent on the independence of the Election Commission (EC).

Recently, serious doubts have been raised that the EC is not performing its function of being a fair umpire in the conduct of the present election. Many retired senior bureaucrats have written a letter to the President pointing out that the Election Commission does not appear to be doing its job in a non-partisan manner. A Model Code of Conduct must be adhered to by all parties once an election is announced. This is a set of guidelines for all political parties. Amongst other matters, it requires that criticism of political parties must be limited to their policies, programmes, past record and work. Using caste and communal feelings, criticising candidates on the basis of unverified reports; bribing or intimidation of voters; demonstrations or picketing outside houses of persons to protest against their opinions, etc., are not allowed. In short, all this is to ensure that the elections are carried out in a fair, orderly, peaceful manner.

In the ongoing election season, this code is being violated. Very openly and brazenly, appeals are being made to communal passions and this is being used to divide Indians. The opposition has descended to calling the prime minister a thief, and the prime minister and the ruling party has branded everyone who disagrees with them traitors and anti-nationals! Government officers have been transferred selectively, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have appropriated the armed forces and the credit for their achievement! Modi made a national broadcast on the anti-satellite missile test to usurp the credit from the scientific community. A NaMo TV channel has been started for 24/7 propaganda and a biopic of the prime minister was to be released. The last has been stayed by the EC, probably because of the letter by the eminent bureaucrats. Electoral Bonds have been issued for parties to collect foreign and black money from unknown sources, to be used in elections. Citizens are concerned about the lack of adequate action by the EC. If it is being compromised, the very existence of Indian democracy is at stake.

To be fair, there have been many times earlier, too, when the EC has not done its job of controlling ruling parties’ actions during polls. The present EC appears to be soft, and unable to control a very vicious campaign. What should the EC do when such violations occur? It has many powers to stop such violations. At the mildest, it can publicly censure a candidate or party. If this is done is done publicly and promptly, it would curb many of the violations. The nation remembers TN Seshan for using all the powers of the EC to make elections fairer and better.

The flaw lies in the way Election Commissioners are selected. The commission is a constitutional authority, created by Article 324 of the Constitution. It is expected and empowered to be independent of the executive. There is, however, no process for the selection of the Election Commissioners. They are all retired IAS officers who are selected by the government of the day. Consequently, the selection becomes an act of a combination of political patronage and bureaucratic networking. Given the extraordinary importance of this position and its ability to favour political parties, it is no surprise that the ruling party usually appoints bureaucrats who appear to be in sync with its thinking and beliefs.

There have been demands for a proper, transparent process for the selection of the Election Commissioners (and commissioners of other bodies), but no ruling party has been willing to do this. It almost appears as if all ruling parties believe they will never lose power and hence would like pliable commissioners in all institutions.

We should have a transparent process for selecting all commissioners -- for Information, Women, Human Rights, Lokayuktas and such other bodies which are checks and balances in governance. The necessary qualities, experience and requirements for a job must be defined. An advertisement should be given for filing such positions at least six months before a vacancy is to occur, inviting applications and nominations.

The UPSC or another body could evaluate these and create a shortlist of six names. An interview should be held with those shortlisted, which could be viewed, recorded and broadcast. This would give a chance to people to understand them, their vision for the job and also understand the commitments made by them. Out of these, three names should be suggested to a committee consisting of the prime minister, the chief justice of India and the leader of the opposition for final selection.

Election Commissioners so appointed are likely to be more effective and ensure that our democratic process remains fair, reliable and trustworthy. Citizens should demand a law for this. Article 324 prescribes such a law to be made, but parliament has never done so.  

It is also necessary to ensure evaluation of the commissioners’ work by civil society and media. In the absence of regular monitoring and evaluation, most of our commissions do not deliver effectively. If we set up a transparent process for selecting all commissioners and evaluate and monitor their work, we can get a truly participatory democracy. That would be a truly patriotic act.

(The writer is a former Central Information Commissioner)