Is Election Commission Toothless or Timid? Answer Lies in How ‘Al Seshan’ Wielded His Powers
For some time now, the role of the Election Commission has come under scanner. There is a debate on its perceived failure to check violations of the Model Code of Conduct.
After an SC reprimand, the EC wielded its powers this week and enforced campaign bans as a punishment on four leaders in UP.
It was left to the Supreme Court to prod the Election Commission to realise the extent of its powers recently.
After the court pulled up the commission for its inaction against political hate speeches, the commission told the court, “We found we have powers!”
After the court reprimand, the EC wielded its powers this week and enforced campaign bans as a punishment on four leaders in UP, including Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, union minister Maneka Gandhi, BSP chief Mayawati and Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party for different periods, for the offensive remarks they made in the last few days.
For some time now, the role of the Election Commission has come under scanner. There is a debate on its perceived failure to check violations of the Model Code of Conduct and ensure a level playing field for the ruling and opposition parties.
It raises the question whether the EC has no teeth or is the EC being timid? It is significant to note that ahead of the ongoing Lok Sabha polls, 66 former bureaucrats, in a letter to the President on April 8, had expressed concern over the working of the Commission. They wrote that the EC's independence, fairness, impartiality and efficiency are perceived to be compromised today.
The evolution of the poll panel has been quite fascinating. While until 1989, it was a single-member commission, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made it into a multi -member one on October 16, 1989, as he was not quite happy with the then Chief Election Commissioner and wanted to clip his powers.
This had given the government enough space to put its own nominees but they had a very short tenure only till January 1, 1990.
Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao again made it into a three-member commission on October 1, 1993 and since then the multi-member panel has been in operation.
Looking back, it is clear that if the EC decides, it has adequate powers to curb the money power, muscle power and other irregularities as demonstrated by its tenth Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan. Pleading for electoral reforms, some of his successors like SY Quereshi and Linghdo have also demonstrated their determination to act.
Seshan proved to be the greatest ringmaster of the great Indian electoral circus in a country where nearly 90 crore voters will exercise their franchise this year. He made the EC powerful within the existing laws.
Appointed by Prime Minister Chandrashekhar, he served as a dreaded CEC from 1990 to 1996. Even today, Seshan is cited as a shining example of what a CEC should be. Even the Supreme Court once told the Commission to aspire for the kind of credibility it enjoyed during Seshan’s days.
Why do people remember a CEC who was being described as a maverick? Seshan’s story is indeed fascinating.
An IAS topper of the 1955 batch, he had once told an interviewer. "I had never conducted an election. I went with two principles: zero delay and zero deficiency.”
He followed both throughout his tenure. He wielded the big stick and implemented the election manual in letter and spirit. Due to his strict policies he was even called “Al Seshan.”
Some of his major achievements include implementation of the election process and the Model Code of Conduct, introduction of voter ID cards, enforcing limits on poll expenses, and elimination of several malpractices like distribution of liquor, bribing voters, ban on wall writing, use of loud speakers, use of religion in election speeches etc.
He introduced election observers and also forced the candidates to keep accurate accounts of campaign expenses.
Seshan took many bold measures. For instance, under his strict watch, a serving Governor who campaigned for his son had to resign. The Chief Secretary of UP was taken to task for issuing an advertisement in a newspaper at the cost of public exchequer.
He recommended to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to sack two of his ministers – Sitaram Kesri and Kalpanath Rai - for allegedly influencing the voters, but Rao did not act. In 1992, the Left parties even called for his impeachment.
The question then that arises is - has the EC performed well in the past seven decades?
While the successes have not been consistent or uniform, the EC has conducted 16 general elections in a free and fair manner. However, it is clear that there is need for more electoral reforms and more transparency.
Even during this elections, political parties all across the country have been brazenly violating the poll code, whether it is using religion to seek votes, or Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh’s campaign to support the Prime Minister or UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s describing the army as ‘Modiji ke sena.’ These seem to indicate the ineffectiveness of the EC to contain the political class.
While we have to wait for a full assessment of the EC’s role in 2019, as of now Supreme Court’s prodding might help the EC to wield its powers more frequently. Undoubtedly, the EC has an unenviable job of not only organising the massive exercise but also ensure that it is held in a free and fair manner.
(The author is a political commentator. Views expressed are personal.)
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