By Arjavi Indraneesh
It is only but natural that an official appointed by the government feels constrained to act against its interest and its functionaries. Of course, there are exceptions, but that is the rule. Some may be less pliable; some may be more. But pliability is a given.
Election commissioners are appointed by the government and there is an inherent clash of interest there. Often, people who served the government as key officials, when made election commissioners, are unable to adjust to the independence that their new position demands and tend to show continued loyalty to their old masters. Such people become absolute misfits in their new role.
This cannot be more truer in the case of the incumbent Election Commission. The neutrality and independence of the body have been challenged on several counts. But the incident in which poll official in Odisha was suspended by the Commission for allegedly checking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chopper in Sambalpur and violating protocol takes the cake.
The action has embarrassed the commission, with opposition parties questioning the brazenness. The Congress party has created a ruckus over the incident. The commission has also received several complaints against Modi’s election campaign speeches in which the complainants see clear violation of the Model Code of Conduct.
The prime minister had created a storm by raising the Sabarimala issue in his campaign speeches in the south despite a clear ban by the Election Commission. Although the issue has been a pot-boiler in the campaign for all political parties, particularly in Kerala, they tried to skirt around the stricture by making only oblique references.
But Narendra Modi mentioned it by name and claimed that the situation in Kerala was so bad that the very act of invoking the name of Lord Ayyappa by anyone would invite criminal proceedings and jail. At other rallies he alleged that the Left and the Muslim League “were playing a dangerous game” to strike at the root of faith and promised to provide constitutional backing to rituals and conventions.
The CPI-M has complained to the Election Commission about Modi’s statement, particularly the reference to the Muslim League, and demanded action for violating the model code of conduct and communally polarising voters by making remarks on the Sabarimala issue.
The poll panel has shown no great sense of urgency in dealing with these cases. The stock response is that detailed reports have been sought on those incidents and once received those would be scrutinised to see if there is any wrong doing.
Earlier this week the Supreme Court had come down heavily on the commission for not being aware of its powers and refusing to crack down on violations by political parties and leaders after its counsel claimed that the poll body was helpless in dealing with the problem.
It took a dressing down by chief justice Ranjan Gogoi to get the commission to act and issue strictures against UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, BSP leader Mayawati, SP’s Azam Khan and union minister Maneka Gandhi for their provocative and communally divisive speeches.
The incumbent Election Commission’s approach is in sharp contrast to what we have seen with commissioners like T N Seshan, whose contributions in reforming India’s murky election scene will be remembered for all times to come. Well, some people bring prestige to the office they hold, while some others bring it down to their own level. The present dispensation is a perfect example of the latter.
Over the years, one can see a certain pattern in the working of the poll panel: its effectiveness largely depended on the persons heading it. This meant that when the setup was under conscientious officers, the law took its course and everyone played ball. But at other times, things were back to square one. And that is a potentially dangerous situation. There is a strong case for reforming the selection of election commissioners so that only the best men and women make it.
The issue has forced itself on to the top of the agenda. A constitutional bench is set to consider the method of finding a fool-proof, independent and transparent system for the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner. The matter was referred to the bench by a smaller bench headed by chief justice Gogoi himself. The Administrative Reforms Commission and the Law Commission have already underlined the need for the institution to be truly independent for the success of democracy and the rule of law.
During the hearing of a petition on the issue before the CJI-headed bench in October last year, senior activist advocate Prashant Bhushan pointed out that when the provision for selection of the election commissioner was being inserted in the Constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar had suggested parliament to make a law for this.
While a more transparent system of appointment has been welcomed by all, including the politicians, when they come to power they tend to be happy with status quo, under which appointments are made by the Union cabinet.
The dramatic manner in which the vulnerability of the institution has been exposed in this week’s developments in the Supreme Court and outside shows that the issue brooks no delay if parliamentary democracy is to succeed in India. (IPA Service)