Insights into Editorial: A crisis of credibility?
In a recent letter to the President of India, a group of retired bureaucrats and diplomats, in the context of recent incidents, expressed concern over the Election Commission of India (EC’s) “weak kneed conduct” and the institution “suffering from a crisis of credibility today”.
The group also requested the EC to “issue directions to withhold the release of all biopics and documentaries on any political personages through any media mechanism until the conclusion of the electoral process”.
They asserted that the release of such propaganda amounted to free publicity, and hence should be debited as election expenditure in the name of the candidate in question.
Election Commission of India:
Election Commission of India (ECI) is a constitutional body under Article-324 vested with the responsibilities of superintendence, direction and control of conduct of elections. It consists of a Chief Election Commissioner and two Election Commissioners.
Article 324 states that the Election Commission shall consist of Chief Election Commissioner and such numbers of other Election Commissioners, if any, as the President may from time to time fix and appointment of CEC and other ECs shall, subject to provisions of any law made in that behalf by the Parliament, be made by the President.
The Election Commission of India (EC) is a formidable institution which has led the world in electoral efficiency since its inception.
Issues with regard to Election Commission of India:
Though the ECI has since become an institution of some authority, there have been controversies over appointments of ECs, allegations of partisanship, and new problems such as of voter bribery and paid news, which the ECI has not been able to address so far.
But in the 2019 general election, it has come under the scanner like never before in the wake of incidents involving a breach of the Model Code of Conduct, particularly those by the ruling party.
Other important issues highlighted in the letter included transfers of top officials, voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) audits, violations of the MCC by Rajasthan Governor and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and also corrosion of the political discourse in general.
Needless to say, the questions being raised about the credibility of the EC are a cause for worry.
It is, however, not the first time that the conduct of the commission has been questioned.
At the core of the issues that need Immediate Attention:
The genesis of the problem lies in the flawed system of appointment of election commissioners, who are appointed unilaterally by the government of the day:
- This debate can be settled once and for all by depoliticising appointments through a broad-based consultation, as in other countries.
- In its 255th report, the Law Commission recommended a collegium, consisting of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of India.
- Political stalwarts supported the idea in the past even when in office. But successive ruling dispensations have ducked the issue, not wanting to let go of their power.
- It is obvious that political and electoral interests take precedence over the national interest.
- A public interest litigation was also filed in the Supreme Court calling for a “fair, just and transparent process of selection by constituting a neutral and independent Collegium/selection committee”.
- Even the Supreme Court which have always described as the guardian angel of democracy has to act with utmost urgency. If democracy is derailed, its future too would be in jeopardy.
Besides the manner of appointment, the system of removal of Election Commissioners also needs correction:
- Only the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) is protected from being removed except through
- The other two commissioners having equal voting power in the functioning of the EC can outvote the CEC 10 times a day.
- The government can control a defiant CEC through the majority voting power of the two commissioners.
- One has to remember that the Constitution enabled protection to the CEC as it was a one-man commission initially.
- This must now be extending to other commissioners, who were added in 1993, as they collectively represent the EC.
The EC’s reputation also suffers when it is unable to tame recalcitrant political parties, especially the ruling party:
- The reform was first suggested by the CEC in 1998 and reiterated several times.
- This is because despite being the registering authority under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, it has no power to de-register them even for the gravest of violations.
- The EC has been seeking the power to de-register political parties, among many other reforms, which the EC has been wanting.
- The EC also submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court saying it wanted to be empowered “to de-register a political party, particularly in view of its constitutional mandate”.
The challenges will be tougher and tougher, because of the emerging technological developments, social media, money power and other factors.
Elections are the bedrock of democracy and the EC’s credibility is central to democratic legitimacy.
The independence of the Commission can be strengthened further if the Secretariat of the Election Commission consisting of officers and staff at various levels are also insulated from the interference of the Executive in the matters pertaining to their appointments, promotions, etc.
It is time that action is taken to depoliticise constitutional appointments and the EC empowered to de-register parties for electoral misconduct.
It is a step needed towards restoring all-important public faith in the institution.
Under Chief Election Commissioners like T.N. Seshan and J.M. Lyngdoh, the commission has in the past shown the capacity to come up with creative solutions that adhere to both the spirit and the letter of the law.
Their examples should encourage the EC to find strength in its constitutional mandate and not plead helplessness in the face of challenges to its authority. The Supreme Court too made the EC conscious of its own powers once more.
While these reforms may continue to be debated, nothing stops the EC from asserting the ample authority it has under the Constitution and being tough.
It’s not their discretion but the constitutional mandate. It did not need a reminder or a nudge from the Supreme Court.
Hence, the guardian of elections itself needs urgent institutional safeguards to protect its autonomy.