By Inder Jit
(Released on 11 January 1983)
Mercifully, the people of Delhi have been given what has been their due for long. Elections have been ordered for the city’s Metropolitan Council and the Municipal Corporation at long last. The announcement has appropriately been welcomed. Better late than never, as the saying goes. But the truth is that the whole affair of the Delhi poll is downright scandalous. The way the poll has been put off again and again for three years in accordance with the ruling party’s whim and fancy is disgraceful. But the choice of the poll date and its suddenness is in itself a bigger scandal, raising several issues of basic importance to the health and future of our parliamentary democracy. True, the Metropolitan Council and the Municipal Corporation are not bodies of very great national important. Nevertheless, their constitution through a free and fair poll involves at last two fundamental issues. First, the commitment of Mrs. Gandhi and her ruling party at the Centre to democracy and democratic norms. Second, the independence of the Election Commission.
Scandalous is, indeed, a strong word. But there was no reason for the ruling party to deny the people of Delhi their Metropolitan Council for three long years, notwithstanding the fact that the Council has limited powers and the Lt Governor ultimately wields overriding authority. The Union Government’s decision not to hold the election was arbitrary and, in the opinion of independent observers, authoritarian. (Angrily asserted on acknowledged expert: “A chori is a chori whether it is a theft of one rupee or a million rupees!”) Conditions in Delhi throughout the period were not only normal and peaceful but ideal. Moreover, the Election Commission kept the electoral rolls updated all along. Revisions were made regularly and, in accordance with the statute, those who attained the age of 21 years on January 1 were duly enrolled together with thousands of others who, like scores of VIPs, chose to settle in the Union Capital. In fact, the former Chief Election Commissioner, Mr. S.L. Shakdher, repeatedly indicated on TV and in the Press his readiness to hold the elections.
Not only that. The former Lt. Governor, Mrs. S.L. Khurana, presumably embarrassed by the repeated postponement of the poll, recommended in September 1981 that the election beheld before March 21 to avoid further extension of President’s rule. However, Mrs. Gandhi and her ruling party chose not to take his advice. Worse. Earlier in March 1981, the then President, Mr. Sanjiva Reddy, also expressed his unhappiness over extending President’s rule in Delhi for another six months and said: “I hope there won’t be the fourth time.” That Mr. Reddy decided to oblige Mrs. Gandhi and signed extension of President’s rule for the fourth time and again the fifth is another matter. He could have easily used his statutory power to ask the Government at least once to reconsider its recommendation. But the important point to note is that the President considered the extension contrary to healthy democratic conventions. What is more, the President was aware of one other aspect. The repeated extension of President’s rule was against the spirit of the Constitution.
The Janata Government, it may be recalled, amended the Constitution to end another scandal — repeated misuse by the Centre of its power to impose President’s rule in a State. This power was given to the Union Government on the understanding that fresh elections would beheld in the State at the earliest and the people enabled to exercise their sovereignty. Yet, President’s rule was imposed time and again and continued unconsciously for even three years to suit the convenience and party interest of the rulers at New Delhi. The Janata Government, therefore, statutorily limited to President’s rule in a state to one year, unless there was emergency and the Election Commission certified that a poll could not be held. Unfortunately, the Janata Government did not make the consequential amendment in the Act under which the Union Territories are constituted. Advantage has been taken of this omission by Mrs. Gandhi to put off the Delhi poll repeatedly, clearly violating the spirit of the amendment of the Constitution.
The new Election Commission, whose decisions are getting curiouser and curiouser, has also not acquitted itself honorably. The Founding Fathers of the Constitution were clear that free and fair elections were the bedrock of democracy and, therefore, provided for an independent Election Commission which would function without fear of favour. Accordingly, they armed the Commission with absolute powers to superintend, direct and control the conduct of all elections. In addition, they provided that “the Chief Election Commissioner shall not be removed from his office except in like manner and on like grounds as a Judge of the Supreme Court.” Yet, the Commission cannot be said to have taken care to see that the election to the Metropolitan Council was fair to all concerned — the people, candidates and political parties. None of the three elements (baring perhaps the ruling Congress-I) have got adequate notice for the poll. Authoritative indication about the election was first available only on January 3 and the formal notification issued on January 5 giving the barest notice under the statute.
The Commission, now headed by Mr. R.K. Trivedi, has tried to give the impression that it had no choice in the matter. In its letter to the political parties on the subject, the Secretary of the Commission, Mr. Ganesan, said: “I am directed to inform you that the Union Government intimated the Commission today (January 3) that the President of India proposed to revoke the order under Section 31 of the Delhi Administration Act 1966 in the Union Territory of Delhi by February 7, 1983. Consequently, it has become necessary to call a general election and complete the election process for thepurpose of constituting the new Metropolitan Council before that date. The Commission has, therefore, fixed the following programme: Issue of notification by the Lt Governor January 5, last date for filing nominations January 12….” The truth, however, is that the Commission is not as helpless as has been made out. In fact, it has none but itself to blame for rushing ahead with the poll and not giving the people of Delhi fair notice.
One basic fact needs to be noted. The Commission along is empowered to decide the dates of an election to Parliament and various States Assemblies, not the Prime Minister as in Britain. The law clearly provides that the President shall order elections on the advice of the Election Commission. Doubts, if any, have been cleared over the past few years. Remember, the Jyoti Basu Government in West Bengal wanted a couple of Assembly by-elections to be held on a given date. But the Commission, then headed by Mr. Shakdher, asserted its authority and fixed dates only after assuring itself that these would be fair to all. Thus, the Commission was under no obligation to view the Union Government’s communication of January 3 as a directive or a fair accompli. It was required to fix dates independently after satisfying itself that these would ensure a poll which was both free and fair. At any rate, the Government only intimated to the Commission that it “proposes” to terminate President’s rule on February 7, even if in doing so it departed from practice and, unlike in the past, mentioned a specific date.
Constitutional experts are clear that it was upto the Commission to accept or not to accept the proposal. Said one veteran: “It could have easily turned down the proposal and instead suggested other dates since President’s rule was due to end on March 21 and there was no special sanctity attaching to February 7. It could have easily proposed March 5 or 12 for the poll. In case these dates were not convenient to Mrs. Gandhi, who is understandably anxious to win Delhi back for the Congress-I, it could have proposed two other Sundays: February 25 or March 19, following the Non-Aligned Summit. Another expert opined: “The Commission should have made it clear that it needed at least 15 days to undertake a summary revision of thepolls and another 15 days for entertaining objections.” In deciding to hold the poll on February 5, the Commission has been unfair not only to the Opposition parties and those who may have liked to contest as independents but also to young persons who may have become eligible to vote on January 1 – and to many others who may have chosen to settle down in the capital.
Regrettably, the Election Commission has not acted in the best interest of the people of Delhi and democracy. Instead, it has abandoned its independence and judgement and surrendered to the interest and convenience of the ruling party at the Centre. As I have pointed out on an earlier occasion, there was no reason to have advanced the poll in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and lumped it with Tripura except Congress-I interest. The main argument advanced by the Commission was that it did not wish to allow the outcome of the Tripura poll, which was due in January, to influence the poll in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which was due early in March. How then has the Commission agreed to hold the Delhi poll a month later on February 5? That Mrs. Gandhi’s calculations have gone haywire and her Congress-I has been routed in its traditional bastion in the South is another story. Alas, the Commission leaves me and many others with the impression that it is now tending to shed fairplay and turn partisan. Nothing can be more unfortunate. — INFA