Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Electoral Reforms

The Election Commission (EC) is a permanent constitutional body. It was established in accordance with the Constitution on January 26, 1950. Originally the EC had only one Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). At present, it comprises of CEC and two Election Commissioners. In fact, the concept of multi-member EC has been in operation since 1993, with decision making power by majority vote. Two new Election Commissioners were added to EC during the tenure of CEC, T N Seshan whom the Government found to be a difficult person. The very purpose was to put some check and control on him.
There are many countries in the world that are democratic in character and hold periodic elections on regular basis to elect the legislators in their countries. However, the Indian election scene stands out because of the huge size of scales involved. The number of electors in an election in the case of India is more than 675 million, the highest in any democracy. The number of polling booths where these electors exercise their franchise is around one million. These are managed by five million officials on the polling day. It must be remembered that this entire exercise is carried out through out the length and breath of the vast sub-continent with its extremely varied physical features.
Changing Scenario
Over the years, the EC has taken several measures to make the democratic process smooth more effective and suited to the present changing scenario. It has, in its role as a listening commission, developed the practice of holding regular meetings with major political parties in the country. These meetings are invariably held before a general election. In these meetings, important issues regarding conduct and management of elections are discussed at length. The EC through this process, becomes aware of the views that exist across the entire political spectrum on these issues. This is an extremely healthy practice and the EC has to be commended for following the path of consultation and eliciting the views of the major players in politics, before it takes on a major issue.
The powers of the EC relating to pre-election, during election and post-election stages are enormous and often unspecified. All of them can directly affect the outcome of the election. Thus, the allotment of symbols to political parties, their recognition or de-recognition for the purpose of symbols and determining the effect of merger or separation of parties are within the jurisdiction of the EC. The preparation of the electoral rolls and their revision are done by the EC. In the name of free and fair elections, the EC had in 2002 postponed the general elections in Gujarat indefinitely.
Electronic Voting Machines (EMV) are produced under the instructions/supervision of the EC. It has been found technically feasible to programme these machines to record the votes in a particular way no matter which button was pressed. After the elections, the EC can find fault in the return of expenditure by a candidate — the consequences are serious.
Like other major democracies, the EC has formulated the Model Code of Conduct. It lays down the norms of behaviour and action that parties and contesting candidates have to adhere to at the time of elections. The Code has specific provisions to see that the party in power does not get an unfair edge over its rivals during elections by virtue of its having access of the levers of power.
The EC is accordingly empowered to do anything for holding free and fair elections so long as the action is not opposed to any legislation. “The Model Code of Conduct” is a product of this residuary unspelt power. The Commissioners who constitute it are like the umpires or referees in any game. Every decision of theirs — right or wrong — can change the outcome irreversibly.
A classic example of the immense power of the commission was demonstrated in Bihar in the first quarter of 1995. The general election to the State Assembly was due in January that year. T.N. Seshan, who considered himself as the monarch of all that he saw as part of free and fair elections, directed in 1994 that the State of Bihar should provide photo-identity cards for all the voters before the next election. Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav failed to comply. In December, 1994, the EC passed a written order that until photo-identity cards were ready, no elections would be held in Bihar.
New Guidelines
Recently, the EC has issued fresh guidelines banning telecast/publication of the results of opinion/exit polls 48 hours prior to the date of Assembly or Lok Sabha elections. In general elections having more than one phase, results should not be telecast/published till the conclusion of the last phase in all the States.
As per the new guidelines, result of any opinion poll or exit poll conducted at any time shall be published, publicised or disseminated in any manner, whatsoever, by print, electronic or any other media, at any time during the period of 48 hours ending with the hour fixed for closing of poll in an election held in a single phase; and in a multi-phased election, and in the case of elections in different States announced simultaneously, at any time during the period starting from 48 hours before the hour fixed for closing of poll in the first phase of the election and till the poll is concluded in all the phases in all States.
Free and Fair Elections
There is no denying that opinion polls tend to influence the voter in the smooth exercise of his/her franchise. If free and fair elections are sine qua non of a democratic form of government, opinion polls set to sometimes negate this concept because these have the potential of either influencing or confusing the voting behaviour. More important, experience in the past few decades suggests that the opinion polls, based on small sample surveys, instead of reflecting the popular opinion, have misled the voters by projecting an unreal picture despite the best of intentions.
In January 1998, the EC had banned the telecast, publication or broadcast of exit polls during elections till the final phase of voting. However, this order was challenged in the Supreme Court. The question of law, which came up in the apex court in 1999, was whether the EC had the power to impose such a ban and under which law. The court reminded the commission that a consensus at an all-party meeting did not provide the required legal sanction. Subsequently, the order was revoked.
The EC had recently asked the apex court to decide whether there should be a reasonable restriction on the opinion polls during certain specified periods during the election process. In October last, the Centre decided to amend the Representation of People Act, 1951, to curb opinion polls so that these do not influence the voters. Inaccurate opinion and exit polls can hardly help the democratic process. Essentially, the debate on the issue is focused on two independent questions — how reliable are these polls? And how right is it to allow them during the electoral process? Unfortunately, the proponents of exit polls are yet to give cogent and credible answers to these questions.
Our unsuspecting Constitution-makers believed that for all time to come honest and sincere people would be in power and they would appoint only suitable, good persons to the constitutional offices. Experience should compel to remedy the situation.

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