Poll Body, Pressure & Independence

Decoding poll freebies  
Poll Body, Pressure & Independence

India has once again proved its claim to be being the world’s biggest democracy. Nearly 300 million people exercised their franchise recently and brought about a smooth change of Government. The country is again poised to hold elections in eight states and one Union Territory – this time to the Assemblies. Outwardly, the electoral system has worked well. Inwardly, however, it is sick and leaves much to be desired. Happily, the Prime Minister, Mr V.P. Singh, convened on January 9 an all-party meeting for consultations on electoral reforms. Subsequently, a 12-member Committee came to be constituted to go into all aspects of electoral reforms and submit its report to the Government expeditiously for required legislative and other action. Most of the maladies of our electoral system are well known and so also the available remedies. But of crucial importance to free and fair elections and to the future of our democracy is the need to ensure the Election Commission’s vital independence which, most sadly, has came to face mounting threat from India’s rulers during the past seven years and more.

Not many are aware that the former Government, headed by Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, wanted the Chief Election Commissioner, Mr. R.V.S. Peri Sastri, time and again to so hold various elections and by-elections as would load the dice in favour of the Congress-I. The powers that be, for instance, wanted the Presidential poll to precede the election to the Haryana Assembly in 1987. But Mr Peri Sastri refused to compromise with the letter and spirit of the Constitution. The Haryana poll, which swept Mr. Devi Lal and his Lok Dal to power, was held on June 17 and the Presidential poll on July 13. On June 16, 1988, the ruling Congress-I demanded a repoll in the Lok Sabha by-election from Faridabad following widespread violence and booth capturing. The CEC again declined to oblige. Instead, he ordered a repoll in 161 polling stations. Matters again worsened over the revision of the electoral rolls in Assam. The CEC was even accused of siding with the AGP in his interpretation of the Assam Accord. But he refused to be bullied by the Government.

Various pressures were thereafter mounted on Mr Peri Sastri to force him to resign. But these too failed. A new strategy was then forged for a “take over” of the Election Commission. On October 9 last, a Presidential notification was issued out of the blue clearing the way for a three-member Election Commission. A week later, Mr S.S. Dhanoa, a retired IAS official, and Mr V.S. Seigell, a retired IB official, were sworn in as the Commissioners. All the formalities were completed in record time, notwithstanding the Government’s earlier opposition to the proposal. On December 16, 1988, Mr. Gandhi himself turned down in the Rajya Sabha a demand for a multi-member Election Commission and stated: “This demand means a multi-member Election Commission and stated: “This demand means that some Opposition members have no faith in the single-member Commission.” Again, the appointment of the two Commissioners was justified on the grounds of an increase in the workload following the reduction in the voting age to 18 years. Yet, the additional workload had already been handled by Mr. Peri Sastri and the rolls revised earlier — by the end of August.

Some of Mr. Gandhi’s aides expected Mr. Peri Sastri to quit in disgust. Not one of the names suggested by him for additional appointment as Commissioners was accepted by the Government. (One name suggested was that of the senior-most among the Chief Electoral Officers in the State). Worse, Mr Peri Sastri was reduced to a minority in the Commission. However, he kept his cool and decided to face the new challenge. This came barely a day later. Early on October 17, the Government decided on its own to hold the General Election on November 22 and even made its decision public. This was wholly improper as the decision is the prerogative of the Election Commission. Expectedly, Mr Peri Sastri was livid and refused to ditto the formal announcement. However, he decided to overlook the impropriety in the larger interest of democracy and a timely poll. Remember, there was repeated talk then about the possibility of the Rajiv Government somehow postponing the poll by a year or more! But the CEC eventually made the announcement only after he was able to sound the Opposition leaders and secure their acceptance of the dates.

The fat was again in the fire before the day was out. The Government, I learn, wanted the Election Commission to announce its programme for the General election on October 17 itself and simultaneously make the required recommendation to the President for issuance of the formal notification for the General election. This was intended to give the Opposition leaders even less time to put their act together and ensure a one-to-one fight against the Congress-I. This was viewed by the CEC as grossly unfair and improper. He, therefore, declined, leading to a fresh crisis. Even the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary was constrained to call on Mr Peri Sastri during the course of the drama-packed day. In fact, things came to such a pass that some of Mr Gandhi’s top advisers explored at one stage the possibility of summoning Parliament to oust Mr Peri Sastri. (The CEC can be removed only in like manner as a Supreme Court Judge.) Fortunately, good sense prevailed at the highest level. Mr. Peri Sastri was allowed to have his way. The President was able to issue the poll notification only on October 22.

Not just that. Information available to me before I left for Darjeeling on October 28 to contest the Lok Saba poll shows that the decision to go in for a three-member Election Commission was mainly calculated to put maximum spokes in the Janata Dal’s wheel. The Janata Dal, it may be recalled, had claimed the poll symbol of the erstwhile Janata Party, namely, a farmer with a holder, following its birth through the merger of the Janata Party and the Lok Dal. But this claim was disputed by Dr Subramaniam Swamy on behalf of the Janata Party and by Mr R.N. Kushwaha on behalf of the Lok Dal. Both Mr Dhanoa and Mr Seigell wanted the Janata Dal denied recognition as a national party and allotment of any reserve symbol, pending a final decision on the dispute. But Mr Peri Sastri was able to ensure fair play prior to the poll by handling the matter deftly. The Janata Dal as well as the Janata Party and the Lok Dal were allotted reserve symbols in an interim order with the consent of all the three parties. The Janata Dal would surely not have bagged as many seats had it been forced to fight the poll on free (and confusing) symbols from constituency to constituency!

One question arises. What can be done to ensure the independence of the Election Commission? Or, as the respected Dr H.N. Kunzru put it to Dr Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly: Can something be done to “provide such safeguards as will give general satisfaction that our electoral machinery will be free not only from provincial political influences but also from the Central political influences.” The Jayaprakash Narayan Committee on Electoral Reforms as also the earlier Joint Parliamentary Committee on Amendments to Election Law favoured a multi-member Election Commission. The idea is no doubt sound in theory. But, as Mr S.L. Shakdher, formerly Chief Election Commissioner, told me in his time: “The proposal is not practicable. I could not have ordered a repoll in Garhwal promptly and thereby prevented the place from going up in smoke if I was not a one-man Commission.” Mr Peri Sastri’s own view is no different. In fact, the recent three-member Commission proved to be a near disaster, hamstringing speedy action time and again.

How does one ensure that the one-man Commission will be fair and impartial? We have had among our CECs Dr S.L. Shakdher and Mr Peri Sastri on the one hand and Mr R.K. Trivedi on the other. (Remember, Mr Trivedi was rewarded with a Governorship for his good work!) Various suggestions have been made over the years. The BJP President, Mr L.K. Advani, would like the Chief Election Commissioner barred from being appointed to any office of profit after retirement. Some wanted the CEC to be appointed by the Chief Justice of India and two senior Chief Justices of the State High Courts. Others want the CEC to be chosen by the President, the Vice President and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha — or by the Government in consultation with the Opposition. However, we need to remember one basic truth: a process of consultation does not guarantee anything, specially in our feudal environment A formal ban on the CEC from holding any office on retirement is highly desirable and should help. Ultimately, we must think in terms of an arrangement which would enable him to get what he needs most: moral authority.

Fortunately, the Election Commission has reportedly come forward with a suggestion, described as “the ideal arrangement” the Chief Election Commissioner, it is proposed, should come to be chosen on the basis of his professional expertise, experience and seniority — like the Chief Justice of India in accordance with established convention. Such an arrangement, we are told, could be evolved by establishing another all-India cadre: the Indian Election Service. The Chief Election Commissioner could then be chosen from the service itself — from among persons designated Chief Electoral Officers and accorded the same status as the Chief Secretary in a State. Even today we have Chief Electoral Officers in the States. They are, however, a part of the administration and open to political pressures both from the State Governments and the Centre. An Indian Election Service, which would essentially be skeleton in character, could provide the answer. The Commission’s proposal merits serious consideration. — INFA


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Poll Body, Pressure & Independence