Debating India

ELECTION COMMISSION

A delayed choice

T.K. RAKALAKSHMI

Sunday 8 February 2004, by RAJALAKSHMI*T.K.

T.S. Krishnamurthy succeeds J.M. Lyngdoh as the Chief Election Commissioner of India, but only after there was speculation that the government wanted to appoint a "pliable" outsider to the post.

in New Delhi

WITH the decks being cleared for the appointment of T.S. Krishnamurthy as the 13th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre has managed to steer clear of what could have become a major political controversy. Krishnamurthy takes over from J.M. Lyngdoh whose term ends on February 7.

Though the trend since the 1990s has been to name the seniormost Election Commissioner as the CEC when the incumbent retires or completes his tenure, this time round there was speculation that the government was interested in appointing to the post somebody from outside the Election Commission (E.C.). The Central government’s silence strengthened the speculation. Ever since the E.C. became a three-member body in October 1989, the convention whereby the seniormost Election Commissioner filled the CEC’s post when it fell vacant was gradually put in place. After T.N. Seshan, M.S. Gill was made the CEC. Lyngdoh took over from Gill and so if the tradition were to be followed, then Krishnamurthy would have had to be the natural successor.

But the delay in announcing Krishnamurthy’s appointment strengthened speculation that the government was looking for a more "pliable" CEC. Lyngdoh had not particularly endeared himself to the BJP, especially during the Gujarat elections. The E.C. was accused of being biased by the Gujarat unit of the BJP. More than the Congress(I), the State BJP projected the E.C., with Lyngdoh at the helm, as its main adversary.

What should have been a smooth transition therefore remained a matter of ambiguity until the January 19 announcement. The BJP’s national leadership, while indicating its zeal for early Lok Sabha elections, did not show a similar enthusiasm about announcing Lyngdoh’s successor. The fact that a mammoth task lay in front of the E.C. in the event of snap polls did not appear to bother the BJP-led government.

The announcement about the general elections came on January 12, the concluding day of the BJP’s National Executive meet in Hyderabad. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee indicated that Lok Sabha elections would be held early and hoped that a new government would be in place at the Centre by April. The political resolution issued by the BJP at the meet asked Finance Minister Jaswant Singh to present a vote-on-account in Parliament.

The delay over the announcement of the new CEC in the scenario of early elections predictably evoked criticism. The Congress(I) expressed concern about reports of appointing an "outsider" the CEC and described the move as a "direct assault on the independence of this constitutional body". Former Member of Parliament Era Sezhiyan criticised the government move to consider a former Cabinet Secretary and a member of the Twelfth Finance Commission for the post. Former CEC M.S. Gill too expressed strong disapproval of any such move. He cautioned political parties against forcing the E.C. to hold elections on dates of their choice.

Krishnamurthy was appointed Election Commissioner in 2000. His tenure as the CEC will expire in May 2005, when he completes 65 years. The Election Commissioners and the CEC have a tenure of six years or up to the age of 65, whichever is earlier. They enjoy the same status and receive salaries and perks as are available to the Judges of the Supreme Court of India.

The Commission decides on most matters by consensus and in the event of any dissension, it is the view of the majority that prevails. The new CEC stated that he would stick to this convention, while talking to mediapersons soon after the government cleared his name to the post.

Krishnamurthy graduated in History, Economics and Political Science from St Joseph’s College, Bangalore. He stood first in the Bachelor of Arts examinations of the University of Mysore. After taking his post-graduate degree in Economics from M.S. University at Baroda, he went on to study Law at the University of Madras. Krishnamurthy joined the Indian Revenue Service in 1963 and served in various positions in the Income Tax Department. He was sent on deputation to the Union Ministry of Finance. As Joint Secretary (Tax Policy legislation), he was closely associated with the Direct Tax Reforms announced in the 1991, 1992 and 1993 Union Budgets. He became Secretary to the Department of Company Affairs, Government of India, in January 1997. He has been responsible for framing a comprehensive Companies Bill to replace the existing Companies Act and also two amendment Bills to the existing Companies Act in order to improve corporate governance and investors’ interests. He has been on several international assignments; he was part of a team to study, advise and report on the electoral system in Indonesia.

The E.C. has made it clear that it would need about a month and a half to prepare for elections after the dissolution of Parliament. Chief Electoral Officers from across the country are expected to meet in the first week of February to discuss the poll dates after reviewing the state of electoral rolls revision and the issue of electoral photo identity cards. However, there are indications that the Lok Sabha polls are unlikely to take place before the middle of April. Notifications for a phased system of polls will be issued only after the revision of electoral rolls are completed. Uttar Pradesh will be the last State to complete this exercise on March 23.

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P.S.

Pic: S. SUBRAMANIUM ; T.S. Krishnamurthy, left, with outgoing Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh.

Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 03, January 31 - February 13, 2004.

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