Saturday, February 7, 2009

Controversy in Election Commission

After Parliament, the executive and the judiciary another institution of the State, the Election Commission (EC), has now fallen in public esteem. That the three-member body has been ridden with differences was known. But the nation has to worry about the present controversy the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), N. Gopalaswami, has caused before the 15th Lok Sabha elections.
The CEC set off a storm in political and legal circles, recommending the removal of one of the two Election Commissioners, Navin Chawla—an unprecedented move that triggered sharp and conflicting views from political parties and constitutional experts. In an apparently recent recommendation to the President Pratibha Patil, Gopalaswami, who is to demit office on
April 20, 2009, sought Chawla’s removal on the alleged ground of his “partisanship” towards the ruling Congress. The CEC’s recommendations to the President appears to be arising out of a complaint filed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before him in January 2008 that had sought Chawla’s ouster over his alleged bias in favour of the Congress.Significantly, Chawla is due to succeed Gopalaswami in the EC, going by its convention of seniority.
What is all the more intriguing is that the CEC, who had been keeping quiet for a year, has chosen to make his move at this time when final arrangements and election schedules are to be worked out. Naturally, there is a deep sense of disquiet among all the right-thinking people about the state of affairs. The controversy presents Gopalaswami in a highly unflattering light. The minimum that the public expects from the Election Commissioners is that they should act in unison and with discretion.
Back to Business
The much-publicised differences notwithstanding, Gopalaswami and Chawla have, however, got down to the business of smooth conduct of the general elections. Extensive discussions were held with representatives of national and regional parties by Gopalaswami and his colleagues Chawla and the other Election Commissioner SY Qureshi. Quite understandably, political parties appealed to the EC and its officers that they must united and not give an impression that was a division among the three Election Commissioners.
Another significant point that was made rather strongly during the review process before the EC announces the final election schedule was that the whole poll process should be completed in the shortest possible duration. The extended conduct of elections not only puts smaller parties at a disadvantage, it also disrupts the normal governance schedule. Once the election machinery is set in motion and the model code of conduct comes into force, even normal developmental activities are affected. This problem gets further aggravated when the elections are held in multiple phases stretching over several weeks. It strains resources and security requirements beyond reasonable limits. Not only that, election fatigue also sets in among the public. That is why it is necessary to hold elections at one go in smaller States and in as few phases as possible in other States. At least the practice of extending it to seven phases as has happened in the past must be dispensed with.
Constitutional Conundrum
The EC is an office of paramount importance and no less crucial than the Parliament, the judiciary and the executive for the sustenance of the country’s democratic health. Any dent in the image and credibility of this institution, which has been given the responsibilities of conducting the world’s most extensive exercise to guarantee free and fair elections, would irreparably harm democracy as much as the institution.
Therefore, now that there is a constitutional conundrum, perhaps, the very process of the CEC and the other members of the EC needs to be reviewed. In this context, the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC), headed by the Congress leader M Veerappa Moily merits more attention than it has received hitherto. The ARC has suggested that the CEC and his colleagues be selected by a collegium comprising five members, including the leader of the opposition. This is an excellent proposal. At present, the President appoints the CEC on the advice of the Council of Ministers giving scope for appointing persons who are biased towards the ruling party.
But in statutory bodies, such as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the appointment of chairpersons and members are made by broad-based committees. If a bipartisan body selects the Election Commissioners, it would reduce the chances of a politically-biased appointment. There is also no reason why only bureaucrats should have a monopoly over the EC.
If one is to go by the law, the Union Law Minister HR Bhardwaj’s response to the whole brouhaha is valid. The Minister pointed out that under Article 324 of the Constitution, the President is the appointing authority of the Election Commissioners, including the CEC, and it was only she who, after consultation with the members of the Cabinet, could actually dismiss any of them.
Need of the Hour
The need for the EC to work as an independent institution above party politics is paramount. Whosoever the President appoints as the CEC after Gopalaswami’s departure, should be aware of that. And to drive home the point that the EC is immune to the political interference, let the new CEC be selected by an independent commission, so there is no whiff of the political baggage he/she brings to the office. The most unfortunate part of the present controversy is that the credibility of the EC has been shaken.

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