By Inder Jit
(Released on 29 March 1985)
His words still ring in my ears, loud and clear. “Our elections have become a farce”, asserted a veteran Congress-I leader from Bihar in Parliament’s Central Hall last week. No, he was not joking. Added the leader: “Your triumph depended this time not upon your popularity with the voters but upon other factors. First, your ability to capture the polling booths. Second and more important, your equation with the Presiding Officer and the District Magistrate”. I interrupted: “This could not have been the rule…” the State leader pointed to an MP from Bihar and said: “Ask him”. “Yes, it is true”, said the MP and added: “My good friend, in future, we need to woo and win over the Presiding Officer and the DM only, not the voters”. We were then given sordid details, which made us sit up. Private armies had been raised and ruthlessly used. Even firearms and explosives were used. I protested again: “Surely, you cannot generalize?” “The leader smiled cynically and replied. “Arre bhai, you wait and watch. Once the people in other states also become wise, the poll will become a bigger farce. The old adage still holds: Jiski lathi uski bhains (Might is right).”
Authoritative information provided to the Lok Sabha on the subject during question time a day later should make all of us ponder. Some of the states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have experienced violence before. But this time, as in Bihar, the scale of violence was more widespread, resulting in more casualties. Free use of the gun as against free exercise of the right to vote led to a greater incidence of booth capturing. In all, 131 persons were murdered or killed in poll violence during the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. As in the past, Bihar topped the list with 28 persons killed in the elections to the Lok Sabha and 51 in those to the Assembly. Andhra Pradesh followed with 7 killed during the Lok Sabha poll and 21 in the Assembly elections. In UP, another state prone to violence, the number was six each. There were cases of sporadic violence and poll murders in Kerala 4, Maharashtra 5, Gujarat 2 and Haryana 1. Bihar had the highest number of cases of booth capturing — 155, UP, followed with 38, Jammu and Kashmir 30 and Andhra Pradesh 29, to mention the bigger states only.
Violence in these states erupted in spite of the deployment of greater number of security forces by the Election Commission to prevent booth capturing. Free use of sticks and guns was made in rural areas of these states to intimidate the voters and the election staff on duty. In Bihar, unlicensed fire arms and explosives were used. This was despite the raids conducted for recovery of such weapons and ammunition. The weapons seized during the raids were 36 country made revolvers, 148 pistols, 14 rifles, 83 guns, 1185 cartridges and 174 bombs. The UP government reported to the Centre that no definite figures were available about the use of unlicensed arms. However, 22 factory-made weapons were seized during the Lok Sabha elections and 18 in the Assembly poll. Anti-social elements still went ahead with their evil designs…. In many cases, there was collusion between the candidates and the Presiding Officers leading to mass rigging. Not unforeseen, ballot boxes were stuffed with marked ballot papers in the preceding night itself — or just before polling was over.
Not only that. An alarum has also been sounded by the Chief Election Commissioner, Mr R.K. Trivedi. In Bangalore last week, he said that recent experience had shown that the most important problem that threatened to assume alarming proportions related to growing lawlessness either in the form of intimidation or coercion of voters or booth capturing. Fortunately, the problem at present was restricted only to one or two states and that, too, in certain limited areas, he added. But the type of violence which was reported and the limit of tolerance displayed by the parties and the public in general showed that it would be necessary to go into their root causes. Time had come to create a climate of security where respect for law and authority was reestablished. These would require long-term measures. In the short-term, there was need to break the nexus between lower level political functionaries and local malcontents and criminals on the one hand and to eliminate political interference in the working of the district administration responsible for the maintenance of law and order on the other.
The Chief Election Commissioner also said a major offensive was needed to be mounted by the political parties themselves to rid the electoral process of this growing menace. The political parties, he felt, should get together to arrive at a consensus to deal with this problem on the moral, legal and administrative planes. At present the law prevented a convict from contesting an election. But some further provisions needed to be made to keep out the social malcontents with a proven record of a shady past. Those whose detentions had been approved by the judicial advisory boards could also be kept out of the polls. He suggested summary trials for those resorting to violence during electioneering including disturbing election meetings on pains of disqualification subject to conviction. All these would have their effect. But the important thing was “for society to demonstrate its strongest abhorrence against political violence and express its preference for peaceful elections through democratic means.”
There is no gainsaying the fact that violence is very much in the air today and steps are urgently needed to contain and tackle it. But we have to devote our attention from now onwards to ensure that it does not vitiate what the founding fathers of the Constitution gave us: a free and fair poll. Mr Trivedi, for his part, also put forward his own remedy at Bangalore. He said the Election Commission had suggested to the Government that it should be given powers to cancel the poll in an entire constituency if it is satisfied that large scale booth capturing, coercion or intimidation has taken place. On the face of it, the proposal is unexceptionable and is certain to win the approval of all right thinking people. Tragically, however, Mr. Trivedi seems to be blissfully unaware of his own powers. The Chief Election Commissioner already has powers not only to order a repoll anywhere but also to ensure that those who conduct the poll act honourably and impartially, as decisively shown by his predecessor, Mr. S.L. Shakdher, in the case of the controversial Garhwal poll to the Lok Sabha in June 1980 and in the elections to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly from Bihar the same year.
Mr. Shakdher was well aware of the tendency in Bihar to indulge in coercion and intimidation of voters and, above all, in booth capturing. (In an earlier election, for instance, one senior Congress-I M.P. was able to win from Bihar because he was able to capture 50 more booths than his rival. In another case, a defeated candidate told me: “I lost because I had one gun less!”) Mr. Shakdher was also aware of the tendency among the Presiding Officers and District Magistrate to oblige friends at the poll — actively or by feigning helplessness. But he tackled the problem through a simple, practical device. He firmly told all Presiding Officers and District Magistrates to conduct themselves correctly and fairly and warned them in so many words: “I shall personally write the CRs of all in regard to their conduct of the poll. There will be a good entry in the case of those who do really well — and an adverse entry against those…..” the threat worked. In the case of Garhwal, Mr. Shakdher asserted his independence and ordered a repoll once he discovered that outside police force had been inducted into the constituency without his knowledge and had vitiated a free and fair poll.
The power of the Election Commission in regard to three matters — superintendence, direction and control — is absolute and cannot be questioned by anyone. (Not many remember that these three words were deliberately and advisedly picked by the Founding Fathers from Article 14 of the Government of India Act of 1935 – a key article designed to give the Secretary of State absolute power to supervise, direct and control the functioning of the Governor General of India, who was authorized even to act “in his discretion” and “exercise his individual judgement. In fact, the Supreme Court has already held that the power of the Commission in the superintendence, direction and control is unfettered and over-riding. Parliament has, no doubt, been empowered to legislate on certain aspects of the elections, such as making provision with respect to elections to legislatures. But the crucial point here is this: all such legislation is subject to the absolute power accorded to the Election Commission to conduct a free and fair poll.
In practice, the three words — superintendence, direction and control — also give the Election Commission two vital far-reaching rights; to virtually legislate and to be informed. The Chief Election Commissioner is empowered to legislate through “direction”, implement the legislation though “superintendence” and interpret the legislation through “control”. Every little detail in regard to the conduct of elections comes under his overall control, direction and superintendence through Section (6) of Article 324 of the Constitution, which provides: “The President, or the Governor of a State, shall, when so requested by the Election Commission, make available to the Election Commission or to a Regional Commissioner such staff as may be necessary for the discharge of the functions conferred on the Election Commission by clause (1).” (italics mine) the word staff does not mean merely officials or clerks of the state. The word embraces everyone under the umbrella of either the centre or the state government, including the police and the army.
The Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, has promised a further package of electoral reforms, having amended the Constitution to ban defections. But legislation by itself will not do. We have also to deal with the crucial human factor. India’s Constitution is basically sound. It has given the Chief Election Commissioner all the power he needs to ensure that a poll is not only free and fair but also without fear. What is required are right men in right places to work it — and to exercise the power fairly and impartially. Mr. Trivedi is right when he urges that steps must be taken to eliminate political interference in the working of the district administration responsible for the maintenance of law and order. There can be no two opinions that the clear line between the state and government has tended to get blurred in recent elections in some states and needs to be restored. Ultimately, India’s ability to meet effectively the new threat of increasing poll violence will depend upon the ability of the Chief Election Commissioner to function fearlessly and independently.— INFA