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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2042

The “Surrender” Of Election Commission

By Tushar Charan - Syndicate Features

The Election Commission of India, established in 1950, is only three years younger than the nation itself. As a constitutional body assigned the task of conducting polls across the country, its importance is obvious. Arguably, a turning point in its history came in 1990 when T.N. Seshan took charge as the head of what was till then a single-member body.

The chief election body soon earned an envious reputation for efficient conduct of polls in the world’s largest democracy, independent of any influence—from the government or politicians. Many of the present reforms in conducting polls--often introduced after standoff with politicians and the government--can be attributed to Seshan. Therefore, it is unfortunate that the office of election commission was involved in an unsavoury controversy that has undermined its image.

By unexpectedly withholding rather delaying the Gujarat poll dates, the election commission raised doubts which could not be dismissed lightly. In one fell swoop, the election commission, in the eyes of many, including some former chief election commissioners, had eroded its well-earned reputation for independence and fairness.

Accusations that the withholding of Gujarat dates came under ‘pressure’ from the office of the prime minister began to circulate fast. The delay in announcement was linked to the prime minister’s visit later in the month (October) to his home state (Gujarat). He was to use the occasion (and he did) to shower multi-million rupee ‘sops’ on Gujarat but would have been prevented from doing so had the election dates been announced along with the Himachal dates.

It may be difficult to prove that the PMO was involved in postponing the poll date announcement, as the Opposition says, though many would be inclined to read something into the fact that the chief election commissioner, A.K. Joti (IAS), came from the Gujarat cadre. Considering the ‘background’ of most of the top appointments made by the government, many would believe that Joti’s Gujarat link helped him occupy the coveted post. This is when the Seshan days at Nirvachan Sadan need to be recalled.

The retirement of Seshan in 1996 as the chief election commissioner of India must have come as a relief to the entire class of politicians and the government of the day. When Seshan took over, the election commission was generally seen as a timid constitutional body assigned the onerous task of conducting free and fair polls. During his tenure of six years he converted the election commission into a genuinely independent but fearsome watchdog of democracy. Words like ‘terror’ and even some derogatory words came to be hurled at him, but Seshan was unmoved in his resolve to make the election commission an impartial, no-nonsense body that it was always meant to be.

Many thought Seshan was a maverick. He had his quirky traits but he did not hesitate to take quick judgements even if it upset politicians or the government after he was convinced that he was doing the right thing to safeguard the mandate of the election commission. He survived an impeachment threat and forced government to concede that its employees had to take orders from the EC, not the government, once they were loaned to the election body on official duty. In 1992 he started pressing for photo identity card for voting in the sincere hope that it would eliminate impersonation. He frowned upon ostentatious poll campaigns. After setting limits on poll expenses candidates were asked to file returns of their expenses under an affidavit. That some of the reforms he initiated later came to be abused does not mean that the election commission has to surrender its freedom and power.

Worried by his pitch for independent functioning of the election commission, in 1993 the then government enlarged the one-member election commission into a three-member body. This was widely seen as an attempt to clip his wings though it cannot be said that the purpose was served.

Defending the decision to delay the Gujarat poll announcement date (the poll schedule was given on Oct 25, 2017), the chief election commissioner has offered some justification -- chiefly that it would have prevented completion of rehabilitation projects in the state started after the floods last monsoon. His contention was that once the poll dates were announced, the staff on relief duty would not be able to pay much attention to the work on hand since they would have to get immersed in the poll preparations. But the question: Why pressing rehabilitation works should be stopped after the announcement of the poll dates in a state. If somehow the model code of conduct comes in the way, the election commission is within its rights to allow work on the incomplete projects.

Another election commission argument—about the weather conditions in the two states. It is true that there will be no weather-related impediment in Gujarat in the coming months while snowfall is a possibility in Himachal Pradesh in November. But prospects of snowfall cannot prevent simultaneous poll date announcement.

The terms of the two state assemblies end within two weeks of each other in January next year and propriety demanded simultaneous announcement of poll dates. Holding polls in two states at the same time can present no logistic or security problem, especially when the election commission is said to be in favour of the entire country going to polls simultaneously.

Till minutes before the election commission announced the Himachal poll dates, the media was given to understand that the dates for both states would be announced in one go. Why the last minute change or withholding of Gujarat poll announcement till 25th October? Doubts arise because the poll-bound state is identified with the prime minister and his party wants to make sure by all means that it retains power.

At least two former chief election commissioners have found fault with Nirvachan Sadan. In 2015, the Jammu and Kashmir government, facing a flood situation worse than Gujarat, had unsuccessfully asked the election commission to put off polls.

It is pertinent to ask why a state government should seek to announce a flurry of ‘sops’ during the last weeks of its term and be so keen to do so before the model code of conduct sets in? What does a state government do in the years prior to the announcement of poll dates?

- Asian Tribune -

A.K. Joti - Chief Election Commissioner
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