Originally Published 2005-05-18 11:48:47 Published on May 18, 2005
By not backing the political demand of the RJD ally for the exit of then Election Commissioners, B B Tandon and N Gopalswamy, the Centre and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have silenced avoidable criticism of the constitutional body entrusted with the task of ensuring common man¿s continued faith in parliamentary democracy.
Case for an all-India Election Service
By not backing the political demand of the RJD ally for the exit of then Election Commissioners, B B Tandon and N Gopalswamy, the Centre and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have silenced avoidable criticism of the constitutional body entrusted with the task of ensuring common man's continued faith in parliamentary democracy. By simultaneously initiating disciplinary action against I V Saptharishi, the IAS officer who had found flaws in the observations and decisions of the two Election Commissioners while ordering re-poll in Bihar's Chapra Lok Sabha constituency last year, the Centre may have put the lid on an issue that tented to taint the august body, whose unbiased functioning is among the few pillars of democracy left untainted in this country of ours. 

It should be said to the credit of the Indian polity that leaders of all hues had no difficulty or hesitation in coming down on RJD chief and Railway Minister Laloo Prasad, when he made the demand. Where there were reservations or reluctance to join issue with Laloo Prasad for whatever reason, political parties and leaders refrained from commenting on the issue - sending out the clear signal that their silence was golden, in the context. Suffice is to point out that another RJD leader and Union Minister, Rahuvansh Prasad had no hesitation in going public with his own reservations against the party chief's pronouncements.

The days following Laloo Prasad's charges have also moved peacefully for the Election Commission and the Election Commissioners named by him. The smooth elevation of Tandon as the Chief Election Commissioner on the retirement of T S Krishnamurty, and the nomination of Navin Chawla as Election Commissioner have had a message of its own from the system, to the polity. Not only did Krishnamurthy defend his colleagues and the institution headed by him when Laloo Prasad made the charge, he also vociferously repeated himself while laying down office. 

For all this however, it needs to be said that Saptarishi's charges was the kind of thing waiting to happen on the nation's poll administration. While it's nobody's case that the Election Commissioners were biased, to brush Saptarishi's observations under the carpet either as biased or on technical grounds could contribute to greater catastrophes, which need to be eliminated at the symptomatic stage itself. At least for the purpose of ending such misadventure on the track in the future, there is now need to find solutions and alternatives.

It's again nobody's case that either Tandon or Gopalswamy was influenced, or got carried away by the heat of the moment while taking the decision that they took on the Chapra issue. Yet, it's in the fitness of things to point out that the politicisation of poll panel appointments and also the pro-active image of the Election Commission have something to do with the current imbroglio, which incidentally the national media has chosen to sweep under the carpet, quick and fast. 

As may be pointed out, Gopalswamy was the Union Home Secretary under then Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, before being named Election Commissioner. Prior to that he had been Chief Secretary of Gujarat, that too under a BJP Chief Minister. While neither position could be said to have influenced him in anyway as Election Commissioner subsequently, care could be taken, at least from now on, to ensure that retiring bureaucrats are not automatically considered for such constitutionally-mandated and politically-sensitive positions without a cooling-off period. 

It beats one's comprehension why in the fitness of things, seniormost promottee-officials of the Election Commission should not be considered for nomination as Election Commissioners. By the same token it needs to be asked why bureaucrats, particularly retired bureaucrats, have become favourites for nomination as Election Commissioners in the first place. 

Maybe, the time is now ripe for a re-look at procedures, and even creating an all-India Election Service, IES, on the lines of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), and the Indian Police Service (IPS). After all, the conduct of elections does not require the multi-faceted talents and experience of a normal bureaucrat, and an Indian Election Service, with direct recruitment by the UPSC, could serve the limited purpose of conducting elections across the nations. It's another matter how individuals would fare even under such a scheme, but that's another matter altogether. 

At the appropriate time, the nation could consider including in the duties of the Election Commission, the management of polls for the nagar palika and panchayati raj institutions, which again form part of the constitutionally-mandated administrative set-up. Of course, States would be envious to hand over such powers as nominating an Election Commission for the conduct of the local bodies polls, but the current controversies involved in the process could require the nation to sit up and take notice before long. 

The Election Commission became a pro-active tool of parliamentary democracy in this country with the advent of T N Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner. It was also during his tenure that the Centre, under P V Narasimha Rao, thought it wise, politically expedient, to expand the poll panel by nominating two Election Commissioners. It was obvious that the political masters wanted to keep a tab on the functioning of the Election Commission, if not curtail its powers outright. Anyway, the Government of the day did not have the required parliamentary majority, and the Supreme Court did rule that the Executive had the powers to nominate more than one Election Commissioner.

It's another matter how any Government could have kept an irrepressible Seshan under check after he had decided to take on the existing system head-on - and even moved the Supreme Court against the appointment of two more Election Commissioners. At the end of it all, however, Seshan too did not cover the evolving electoral system and parliamentary democracy with glory, when after retirement he decided to enter the electoral fray directly - first, both an independent candidate contesting the presidential polls, and also as a Congress nominee challenging Advani for his Gandhinagar seat in the Lok Sabha. 

M S Gill, Seshan's successor as CEC, did not do the office any credit, either, when he walked straight from the 'Nirvachan Sadan' on retirement to the Rajya Sabha, with the support of the ruling Congress in native Punjab. It's not clear as to whom between Seshan and Gill inflicted the greatest damage on the emerging public perception that the Election Commission was no more a toothless tiger. 

This has since been followed by the tenure of Lyngdoh, when the 'Gujarat poll controversy' rocked the nation, with and the Election Commission declining the Narendra Modi Government's advice on finalizing poll dates - as had always been the case since Independence. The CEC also publicly chastised senior State Government officials, in the presence of the media, for alleged bias and partisanship. In a way, the 'Satharishi episode' now is only a reversal of this.

It's in this background, one wished that individual Election Commissioners had reflected on the wisdom of their taking up the assignment in the circumstances in which they were placed immediately preceding their respective appointment. Such charges as the present one by Saptarishi were waiting to happen, and individuals should have put the institution before self, whatever be their vision and mission for their future role as Election Commissioners.

Maybe, the emergence of the Laloo Prasad brand of electoral politics might have encouraged the likes of Seshan to go pro-active, and also created the environment and public mood in their favour. That should not mean that they could go overboard, or look the other way. To say the least, it beats common sense and comprehension to accept that the BJP candidate against Laloo Prasad in Chapra did not commit any violation of the model code. Maybe, they were less serious and fewer in numbers - or, not. 

Before Seshan and the rest arrived on the scene, we have had Election Commissioners like Sen Gupta, who had done credible and creditable work under more testing times, when there was no national media to argue the poll panel's case before the public - or, prejudge the decisions, either. Those were also the times when the ruling Congress won elections by wide margins, and a few thousand bogus votes would not have made any difference to the ultimate outcome. Or, so had gone the argument in rarified circles of politics and bureaucracy.

In more recent times, the Election Commission under T N Seshan, after having concluded through public hearings that bogus votes were after all cast in the Assembly by-elections for the Mylapore seat in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai, however ruled that the number of bogus votes were not adequate to offset the 7000-vote victory margin of the ruling AIADMK. That was in 1994, but little seems to have changed, in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere since - if one went by the violence that rocked the more recent by-elections in two municipal corporation wards in Chennai, in which at least eight State Ministers, not to leave out ranking leaders of the rival DMK, were deeply involved. There is need for change at all levels, and efforts need to be addressed before the game is lost.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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