Election Commission Woes
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
A six-member delegation of the Trinamool Congress submitted a memorandum to the Election Commission of India alleging “deep-rooted conspiracy” to “attack” West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, and demanding “immediate, thorough, and unbiased investigation” into the incident that caused injuries to Mamata during her election campaign. The BJP on the other side, urged the EC to set up a panel to probe into the incident and requested it to release the footage of the “accident”. The EC has taken action against three officials for lapses in security. The incident shows the bitterness of election fight literally carried on at personal levels. For the EC, it is extension of its responsibility to undertake investigative policing task – a duty of the regular police.
It is reported that a couple of days earlier, the EC removed West Bengal DGP with immediate effect on an adverse joint report from the special general observer and two police observers and directed the state Chief Secretary to assign no poll-related duty to that DGP. To the TMC, hedge removal is a proof of the conspiracy against CM behind the attack. Some more transfers are expected. Perceived by the TMC as “political interference” by the EC in state administration.
It is repetition of similar charge made by West Bengal Government in 2019 of bias against the EC for transferring four senior police officers overlooking the powers vested in the EC under the Representation of People’s Act over police officers designated for election duties. An instance of ignoring the powers of the EC.
The TMC also questions the EC about holding elections in eight phases – one phase more than the number of phases in the last Lok Sabha election in the State. It is in sharp contrast with single-phase election announced for Tamil Nadu. But, the query overlooks the volatile situation prevailing in West Bengal and unending charges and counter-charges of political violence and despicable hate speeches and the need for a large contingent of Central forces to ensure free and peaceful polling. A case of attributing motives to an administrative arrangement of the EC in charge of holding elections.
The EC has given full authority to its observers in West Bengal to monitor state-wide deployment of police and Central paramilitary forces to intervene wherever they notice any deviation from approved poll security plan. Poll observers are said to be the face of the EC in the five States and one Union Territory going to polls in April. A normal administrative delegation of authority for prompt and efficient action, but viewed as a political ploy.
In Chennai, some organisations working in the field of electoral reforms have asked the EC to scrutinise election manifestoes and promises made on platforms by political parties immediately and take action against violations of guidelines without waiting for polling. A duty of EC derived from its own regulations, a quasi-judicial work.
A case is also filed in Madras High Court regarding this. The Supreme Court, in 2013 directed the EC to frame guidelines to govern the contents of manifestos. The EC has included a provision making it mandatory for parties to explain the rationale behind the promises made by them and indicate the sources to meet the financial requirements for them. However, in 2016, several complaints were made of lack of prompt action against the parties in TN for violating the guidelines. The EC is now asked to take action before the election. Necessary, but will widen the woes of the ECI.
We can expect a series of petitions as poll manifestos are full of promises of freebies, cash payments, and special privileges in a competitive spirit unmindful of availability of resources or the powers of the State Governments. The AIADMK, for instance, has promised dual citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, Rs.1,500 per month for housewives, and free housing for all homeless. The DMK, to wipe out the label it has earned as “anti-Hindu”, has promised to finance restoration and consecration of temples at a cost of Rs.1,000 crore, and spiritual tour for one lakh devotees every year – a naked religious stunt. To the EC, screening manifestoes is an unnecessary burden necessitated by parties failing or refusing to follow rules and guidelines.
Inner party divisions over recognition, name and symbol have always bothered the EC. This time, it is the turn of the Kerala Congress taking the case up to the SC which upheld Kerala High Court’s order confirming the stand taken by the EC. The allegation against the EC was that its order was “baseless”. A constant headache of EC in one State or other.
The EC’s action replacing the pictures of metroman E. Sreedharan, a BJP candidate with cricketer Sanju Samson, a neutral icon in the posters of the EC has no political significance, but interpreted differently.
The Model Code of Conduct, framed in 1968 by the EC and revised in 1982 is aimed at curbing electoral malpractices and ensuring “level-playing field” for all parties. In discharging its duty of enforcing the code, EC encounters maximum problems with parties.
The EC took several years for realising its own constitutional power and position and using them also. In fact, the supremacy of the EC in deciding poll-related issues is much above that of many other institutions. The CEC can be removed only by impeachment like the judges of the Supreme Court.
During 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Supreme Court intervened several times to make the EC assert its powers in upholding free and fair election. In the words of the then CJI, it roused the EC “to wake up to its own powers” and take action against politicians for making communal and religious statements in election campaigns.
It stood up for the Commission on the issue of transparency in electoral bonds and directed parties to provide complete information to the EC on every single donor and contribution received through electoral bonds. EC’s decision to rescind the election in Vellore was upheld by the Madras High Court as the decision of an expert body.
2019 marked a stage of enhancing EC’s responsibility. Present series, bringing up more and more ticklish issues is bound to increase its woes and with that, its primacy in handling elections in the world’s largest democracy. Still, the EC is powerless in de-registering political parties. It has no judicial power to award punishment for contempt.
The numerous problems the EC is facing today should not lead to disgust and despair. It is challenged, accused, and questioned, and may feel the pressure of parties and the burden of problems, and has to fulfil the expectations of voters to organise orderly elections.
Despite many rules and regulations, election atmosphere is deteriorating day by day. Still, we are able to conduct free and fair elections. Much of the credit is due to the constitutional body – the Election Commission of India.
Any reform pertaining to conducting elections and concerning the agencies involved in election matters must come in consultation with the EC, which has vast experience in dealing with parties, leaders, and the electorate engaged in bitter fight for political power. — INFA