Recently Election commission of India was in the news for wrong things. The news was that the PMO had invited election commissioners for a meeting. Opposition parties and five retired Chief Election Commissioners raised objections and said that such meetings question the credibility of the Election Commission. This was not the only news. There were also some allegations against state election commissions that they were favoring the ruling parties. The election commission is expected to act independently and neutrally in conducting elections. This, such allegations need serious examination.
A transparent and independent election commission is the sine qua non for free and fair elections and democracy. To understand the importance of the Election Commission, it is essential to know the role of the election commission. The election commission is a constitutional body established under article 324 of our constitution. It provides the election commission with the power of superintendence, direction, and control of elections to Parliament, State legislatures, the President and the Vice President of India.
The election commission has to perform various functions to conduct elections smoothly. It prepares, maintains and periodically updates the electoral rolls; supervises the nomination of candidates; registers political parties; issues a model code of conduct and monitors election campaigns. If the election commission fails to perform any of the functions mentioned above, questions will be raised about the sanctity of elections. Democracy will be in danger as the very essence of democracy is removed when elections are not free and fair.
To strengthen the foundation of Indian democracy, the constituent assembly envisaged an autonomous and independent Election commission with constitutional safeguards. The chief election commissioner is provided with the security of tenure. He cannot be removed from his office except in the same manner and on the same grounds as a judge of a Supreme Court. Further, the service conditions of the chief election commissioner cannot be varied to his disadvantage after his appointment.
Despite the above safeguards, there have been instances where fingers were pointed toward the election commission for not working independently and fairly. During the 2019 general election campaign, there were allegations against the ruling party for violating the model code of conduct. The model code of conduct is a set of guidelines to regulate the conduct of political parties and candidates during elections. It helps the election commission to conduct free and fair elections.
Prime Minister’s speech regarding Mission Shakti was another example where the opposition claimed that the ruling party was taking advantage of its position to gain publicity before elections. After successfully completing the anti-satellite missile test, Prime Minister announced this achievement through a nationally televised address. The opposition raised questions over the government’s intentions and alleged that since the country is in election mode, this violates the Model Code.
Part VII of the model code deals with the provisions regarding the conduct of the party in power. It bars the ruling party from using public money to publicise achievements ahead of elections. The election commission formed a five-member committee to investigate the matter. The committee gave a clean chit and said there was no violation of the model code. As Doordarshan and AIR took the feed from a news agency, and more than 60 channels did the same, technically, the party in power did not use public money (official mass media) to publicise achievements ahead of elections.
As a landmark achievement Mission Shakti deserved public announcement. If DRDO had announced the achievement, instead of Prime Minister, it would have served the purpose. Further, if we go by the legal maxim that ‘what cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly either’ and follow the model code in letter and spirit, a violation of the model code is visible in this announcement of Mission Shakti’s achievement.
Incidents such as these tarnish the image of the election commission. People start losing faith in the electoral process. This, the democratic credentials of the country are undermined. There are other factors apart from violations of the model code that indicate the failure of the election commission and make it appear as a toothless tiger. The election commission’s failure to arrest the growth of increased violations of the Representation of People’s Act and the increased use of money and muscle power resulted in the criminalisation of politics. According to one report, nearly 43% of MPs in the current parliament are from criminal backgrounds.
Nowadays, politicians appeal voters on the basis of caste and religion; this is against the values enshrined in our constitution and illegal according to the Representation of the People’s Act 1951. Effective implementation of such acts and timely action against the violators will aid in restoring people’s faith. Election commissioners and the commission must act together to ensure free and fair elections.
The election commission’s role has become paramount in maintaining the sanctity of parliamentary democracy. The example of T.N. Sheshan’s tenure as a chief election commissioner is significant here. He used the mandate and powers of the election commission to tame the criminalisation of politics. During his tenure, there was a decrease in the number of cases of booth capturing and electoral violence. He also cracked down on politicians violating the model code of conduct. One governor had to resign during his tenure because he campaigned for his son in elections despite being the governor of the state.
Christophe Jaffrelot observes in a piece, The Great March of Democracy, “The same institution may have very different attitudes if its chief is strong or weak, disinterested or preparing for his next (post-retirement) office.” This looks pretty accurate, as the integrity and honesty of individuals working in an organisation is imperative for the efficient working of the organisation.
In the current situation, criticising the election commission alone would be unjust. Politicians and citizens both should be held accountable.
Former Home minister Lal Krishna Advani’s suggested reforming the election commission. He suggested that the retired members of the election commission should not be offered any further appointments and that retired secretaries of the government of India should not be appointed as members of the election commission.
Political science scholars and theorists have certified the Indian democracy as a success. The election commission’s contribution to this success has been immense. It has done impressive work in conducting elections where a huge number of parties contest in a free and fair environment. Nearly one-sixth of the world’s electorate participates in Indian elections. With cooperation from political parties, the election commission can further rectify discrepancies in the electoral system and strengthen our democracy.