Source: 
The Leaflet
https://theleaflet.in/election-commission-of-india-amidst-diminishing-public-confidence/
Author: 
NEELAM PANDIT AND CHINMAY BENDRE
Date: 
19.04.2024
City: 

Historically, the Election Commission of India has done a commendable job of taking India from a fledging democracy to a place where it claims to be the ‘mother of democracy’, but recent developments suggest an urgent need for course correction. 

IN a recent interview with Deepak Sharma, noted economist Dr Parakala Prabhakar warned that should the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) retain power in the forthcoming general elections, India might not witness another election.

He said, “2024 ka jo chunav hoga abhi, agar ye sarkar wapas ayi to uske baad chunav hoga hi nahi.”

In 2019, fears akin to these were voiced by various political figures such as Arvind Kejriwal and Kumar Ketkar. Although these apprehensions did not come true, political observers have highlighted the perceived erosion in the country’s democratic values.

As the elections for the 18th Lok Sabha commenced on April 19, this article is an attempt to examine the responsibilities of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the challenges it encounters amidst diminishing public confidence.

A glorious past

The ECI enjoys a glorious past. The conduct of the first general election itself was a remarkable achievement, especially considering the majority of India’s electorate was largely illiterate.

Compounded by the ongoing conflict in Kashmir and the influx of refugees from East Pakistan, the situation became even more challenging. Further complications arose with separatist movements gaining traction in the North East and South India.

Internationally, the atmosphere was similarly bleak, with the assassinations of Liaquat Ali Khan in Pakistan and Haji Ali Razmara in Iran by military establishments.

Additionally, apartheid policies in South Africa denied citizenship to coloured people, and Vietnam was embroiled in a struggle against French colonialism. Amidst this backdrop, a newly independent India sought to uphold its democratic principles and secular identity through elections.

Similarly, during the insurgency wave of the 1980s, elections played a pivotal role in restoring peace in states such as Assam and Punjab. Moreover, there exist numerous accounts of the ECI venturing through jungles and snow-capped mountains; traversing rivers; transporting electronic voting machines (EVMs) on animal backs; and establishing polling stations in tents, shipping containers and booths in remote hamlets with one or two voters, all in the steadfast pursuit of ensuring that ‘no voter is left behind’.

Dr Parakala Prabhakar warned, “2024 ka jo chunav hoga abhi, agar ye sarkar wapas ayi to uske baad chunav hoga hi nahi.”

In the golden jubilee celebration ceremony of the ECI in 2001, late President Dr K.R. Narayanan emphasised the results of a public opinion poll, where he claimed that “the people rated the Election Commission very high, far ahead of the police, the bureaucracy, the political parties, the Central Government, local self-government and even the judiciary”.

This trust bestowed by the public can be credited to individuals such as Sukumar Sen and T.N. Seshan, who diligently upheld the integrity and independence of the institution.

A controversial present

In recent times though, the ECI has suffered significant damage to its reputation. In a notable incident, the ECI attracted bad press over the contentious appointment of Navin Chawla as an election commissioner amidst allegations of his closeness to the Congress party.

Subsequently, a controversial letter from the then Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) N. Gopalaswami to the President of India, advocating for Chawla’s removal, further fueled the controversy.

This entire episode unveiled a host of issues, signaling that the once-independent and steadfast ECI was now vulnerable to political influence.

Since the BJP-led NDA assumed power in 2014, the ECI has witnessed unconventional appointments and surprising resignations. The abrupt appointment of Arun Goel in November 2022, as also his resignation just before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections citing “personal reasons”, raises significant concerns.

Unconfirmed sources suggest that Goel resigned due to “serious differences” with the CEC Rajiv Kumar. It is noteworthy that in August 2020, Ashok Lavasa abruptly resigned from his position as the election commissioner to assume the role of Vice President at the Asian Development Bank. Such occurrences are unparalleled under any government since India’s independence.

Moreover, there are matters beyond appointments and resignations that the ECI must transparently address.

The ECI has notably reversed its position on the controversial issue of electoral bonds. Before the scheme was introduced in 2018, the ECI cautioned the Union law ministry about potential illegal foreign donations and the heightened risk of black money being utilised for political funding through shell companies.

Yet, the ECI opposed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking a stay on issuing a new batch of electoral bonds starting from April 1, 2021, citing the forthcoming elections in five assemblies.

Another controversy that has tarnished the commission’s reputation is the nationwide implementation of the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and the ECI’s failure to ensure transparency in the matter.

The conduct of the first general election itself was a remarkable achievement, especially considering the majority of India’s electorate was largely illiterate.

In June 2019, Prasun Banerjee, a Lok Sabha member, through Unstarred Question No. 827, asked “whether any discrepancy was found between the EVMs and VVPAT machine counts”.

In response, the minister of law and justice indicated that “the information is being collected [from the ECI]” and would be presented to the House. However, despite numerous reminders from the ministry, on September 3, 2020; February 19, 2021; October 7, 2021; November 26, 2021; and June 3, 2022, the ECI failed to provide the requested information.

The 85th review report of the Assurances Committee of Lok Sabha in July 2023 took cognisance of this gross misconduct.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) petitioned the Supreme Court in April 2023, urging the counting of all VVPATs in the 2023 assembly elections.

Subsequently, in September 2023, the ECI stated in an affidavit before the Supreme Court that a 100 percent verification of EVMs was “regressive”, a position that has bewildered many political observers.

Similarly, the callous neglect of the concerns expressed by the opposition parties has further exacerbated public distrust in the commission.

On December 30, 2023, senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, in a letter to the CEC Rajiv Kumar, sought a meeting of the I.N.D.I.A. delegation with the ECI to discuss and offer suggestions regarding the use of VVPATs.

The CEC rejected the request and in the reply letter dated January 05, 2024, pointed out that “a comprehensive reply dated August 23, 2023 was issued by the ECI”.

It is crucial to highlight that this was not an isolated incident. The Hindu reported that the I.N.D.I.A. bloc had previously requested a meeting with the ECI on December 20, 2023 and submitted a memorandum on August 9, 2023 regarding EVM-related concerns (addressed by the ECI via a letter dated August 23, 2023), along with a follow-up presentation on October 2, 2023.

Expressing his frustration with the ECI, Ramesh stated that “neither a response has been received nor an appointment given for a meeting”.

The trust bestowed by the public in the ECI can be credited to individuals such as Sukumar Sen and T.N. Seshan, who diligently upheld the integrity and independence of the institution.

On the contrary, the commission appears to be far from neglecting the executive. In December 2021, The Indian Express reported that officials from the ECI participated in a virtual meeting chaired by the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, P.K. Mishra, regarding a note proposed by the Union law ministry on the common electoral roll.

While the CEC and other election commissioners did not attend the meeting, they had an ‘informal interaction’ with Mishra shortly afterward. This development raised eyebrows among officials within the commission and political observers alike.

Concerns regarding the susceptibility of the ECI to executive influence were raised and deliberated upon in the Constituent Assembly.

Members such as Pandit H.N. Kunzru and H.V. Pataskar urged Dr Ambedkar to address any inclinations that could undermine the independence of the commission. Prof. Shibban Lal Saksena pointed out the risk associated with one party holding a significant majority.

He stated, “There is danger where one party is in a huge majority. As I said just now it is quite possible that if our Prime Minister wants, he can have a man of his own party [in the election commission].”

Unfortunately, 75 years later, these apprehensions have materialised in an unfortunate incident. The nation and the highest judiciary have taken cognisance of the actions of Anil Masih, an active member of the BJP’s minority wing, who manipulated the Chandigarh elections while serving as the returning officer.

Yet, while introducing the draft Article 289 in the Constituent Assembly on June 15, 1949, Dr Ambedkar emphasised the significance of safeguarding the “purity and freedom of elections to legislative bodies” from executive interference.

Anticipating a bright future

In light of the above, it is imperative for the electoral body to rejuvenate itself, necessitating certain essential reforms.

Firstly, the Constitution should be expressly amended. The Constitution itself should include provisions for safeguarding the salary and other related aspects concerning the CEC and other election commissioners.

Another controversy that has tarnished the commission’s reputation is the nationwide implementation of the VVPAT in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

This is essential to prevent the appointment of controversial individuals as election commissioners in the future.

The Goswami Committee, in its 1990 report on electoral reforms, also advocated for a similar reform to the Constitution. Furthermore, Prof. Shibban Lal Saksena has proposed that the CEC of India should “not be a nominee of the President but should enjoy the confidence of a two-thirds majority of both the Houses of Parliament”.

Secondly, the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service, and Term of Office) Act should also be amended.

The selection committee provided for in Section 7 of the Act requires two significant reforms. Firstly, the current composition contradicts the Supreme Court ruling in Anoop Baranwal versus Union of India, so also the recommendations of the Law Commission (255th report) by excluding the Chief Justice of India from the committee.

Secondly, Section 8(2) of the Act grants the selection committee the power “to consider persons beyond those listed in the panel by the search committee”. 

The vesting of such broad powers in the selection committee has the potential to undermine the independence of the commission. In a recent development, the ADR and Congress leader Jaya Thakur lodged petitions against the Act in the Supreme Court.

On June 15, 1949, Dr Ambedkar emphasised the significance of safeguarding the “purity and freedom of elections to legislative bodies” from executive interference.

Additional reforms are required concerning the qualifications of members, the decision-making processes of the poll body, the rigorous and impartial enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct and acting against media violation.

Undoubtedly, Dr B.R. Ambedkar would have taken pride in the commission’s role and performance since the country’s independence.

However, the recent controversies have tarnished the prestige of the commission and its high-ranking officials.

The quest of our citizens is for an election commission that stands resolutely independent and insulated from executive influence. As a guardian of democracy, it is incumbent upon the commission to continually strive for transparency, integrity and inclusivity in electoral procedures, thereby fortifying the democratic ethos of the nation.

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