Debating India


For trouble-free elections

Saturday 21 May 2005, by RAGHAVAN*R.K.

The Election Commission needs the expertise to assess a law and order situation in order to avoid controversies similar to the one surrounding the Chapra repoll.

SENIOR civil servant Saptarishi’s spat with the Election Commission is most unfortunate. I personally know the principal players in the drama, and know them also to be reasonable individuals with a clear mind and an acute sense of public service to back it. If so, why did one of them fly off the handle and generate a major controversy over an incident that is nearly a year old? Is it the Delhi heat - both literal and figurative - or is it a political game that has triggered this? It is anybody’s guess. I am impressed by the sagacity and objectivity of the Union Law Minister and the Prime Minister in quickly denouncing any attempt to denigrate a hallowed institution, one that acquired new credibility under former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) T.N. Seshan, who lent enormous courage to his successors to stand up to political pressure aimed at diluting the fairness of the election process.

There are principally two issues involved here. First is the open allegation that Election Commissioners are not all that apolitical and free from caste bias and they can be influenced. This is no doubt the pitfall of many public offices all over the world and the procedure for choosing their incumbents. However much the Founding Fathers who draft a Constitution labour to insulate sensitive organs of government from political caprice, by prescribing a rigid and clinical procedure for appointing important public functionaries (in India these include members of the judiciary, Election Commissioners, the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation), a political diehard can derail the process through subtle manoeuvres. Hundred per cent objectivity and political insularity in the processes of appointment is a pipe dream. Some commentators and opinion leaders tend to deny this hard reality and write columns that are blind.

The episode highlights the vulnerability of Election Commissioners and the need for them to be circumspect when handling volatile situations created by instances such as countermanding of polling. The unity displayed by the three commissioners is commendable. I would expect them to go beyond this and keep their direct briefing of the press to the minimum. Except during a major development, the CBI practice of communicating to the media through a Press Officer is worthy of emulation.

In my view, the second most important issue raised by the controversy is the need to standardise assessments of a law and order situation. Let us be clear that elections in the future are not going to be a dumb affair. They are going to be more and more contentious as the stakes are likely to become higher and higher (I am being polite not to spell out what these stakes are!). The fact that electoral fortunes are far from constant because public perceptions are fragile and open to emotions and this, in turn, gives a chance to every strong political group to occupy the seat of power at reasonable time intervals has not brought any maturity to even the strongest parties. My conjecture is that we will see more violence each time elections are held. When this is the ground reality, how is the E.C. going to conduct elections in a fair manner, in an ambience of relative peace? What standards is it going to set for itself while assessing whether the situation in a constituency or parts thereof is conducive to the fearless exercise of their franchise by the poorest and the weakest? This is an area that would call for serious research and implementation of the findings derived from it.

It is saying the obvious that a party in power has an unfair advantage over its rivals when facing an election. This is why Rajaji demanded that it should step down for a brief spell, say six months, before the elections. The interregnum could possibly be taken care of by President’s Rule. This has not found favour with any party because none of them wants to lose the advantage of misusing government machinery, especially the police, in trying to influence the outcome. It is an entirely different matter that in the past, many parties, in spite of possessing that advantage, were voted out of office.

The E.C.’s whole exercise aims at facilitating a high percentage of voting. Apart from creating as many polling stations as possible, it would like to ensure that no eligible voter is deterred by fear. Here the ruling party has the tremendous advantage of pressuring the police into turning a blind eye to complaints of intimidation. Interestingly, in our country, apart from the ruling party, Opposition parties are also known to intimidate groups of voters. This is thus a highly complicated situation. Police deployment in the field is thin, especially in the case of a one-day election in a State. Hence polling officials have to fend for themselves in case they want to intervene and take action against those indulging in malpractices. In States like Bihar, where poll violence is endemic, how many officials will dare to act on their own without the assistance of the police? This is the dilemma that faces the E.C. as it tries to achieve the laudable objective of seeing the total elimination of fear and intimidation of voters on the polling date.

WHILE ordering repoll in the Chapra Lok Sabha constituency in April 2004, the E.C. was influenced by reports of large-scale booth capturing and intimidation of poll officials. Special Observer Saptarishi recommended repoll only in 89 polling stations. His report did not suggest that it was necessary to go in for a fresh poll in the whole constituency. The E.C. chose to send another team on the basis of reports that spoke of more widespread violence than that indicated by Saptarishi. I do not think we can find fault with this action. It was their estimate of the ground situation on the day of polling that counted in the final analysis. In such situations there could be more than a hint of subjectivity. My point is how best this element of subjectivity can be overcome. Is standardisation possible in terms of the number of polling stations affected by malpractices that would inform a decision to order a repoll? Also, when would you overrule the recommendation of a Special Observer? This is particularly because such an observer is carefully chosen after considering his track record for objectivity and integrity.

I am sure the E.C. can easily pick constituencies that are obviously sensitive because of the high profile of the candidates involved, and choose the Special Observer only after assessing his suitability in terms of ability to come to dispassionate conclusions. Chapra was definitely one such constituency and I am sure the choice of Saptarishi was carefully made. It is this analysis that makes me sad that Saptarishi had to go to the extent of lambasting two of the Election Commissioners in such a blatant manner that it alienated him from a large number of neutral individuals. Attributing motives to his current stand and citing the outstanding chit that former Minister Arun Jaitley gave him in his annual rating are all irrelevant to the issues involved here.

I am convinced that the only way we can ensure free voting is to take the process right to the doors of voters. We need to examine the feasibility of taking the ballot boxes to voters’ residences by poll officials accompanied by party agents and under police escort. This will work eminently well in urban centres. But in rural areas this mobile voting arrangement will involve travel across long stretches and through desolate areas, enhancing the danger of the polling official group being waylaid and ballot boxes being snatched away. This danger can be taken care of if a sufficient number of police personnel are deployed on such sensitive missions, taking advantage of the fact that there are no static polling stations to be manned by the police or auxiliary agencies like the Home Guards.

There is a lot of debate over the wisdom of having a one-day election in each State. I presume the rationale here is that such a schedule successfully cuts at the root of bogus voting by groups that migrate from constituency to constituency in the case of multi-day voting. The validity of this rationale is extremely limited. This is because every political party has such a large army of motivated volunteers who would indulge in any malpractice to promote party interests that I am not very sure that a single-day poll would reduce fraud or violence. On the contrary, such a system drastically brings down the number of police personnel available to each constituency for preserving law and order. Here again, there is a need for a re-look at the E.C.’s current practice and standardising it for the whole country.

One interesting, possibly bizarre, thought. As currently organised, the E.C. lacks the expertise to assess a law and order situation. As a result, it has to depend heavily on the assessment of its Special Observers and that dished out by State governments, which can be easily assailed sometimes as tendentious and in favour of the party in power. I strongly believe that the E.C. would be greatly helped by inducting a senior police officer with a good track record in the State Police into its ranks, perhaps at the level of a Deputy Election Commissioner. It is he who can bring about the much-needed expertise to analyse the intricacies of a ground situation. After all, law and order has become a hugely complex phenomenon and a mere administrative background that the present commissioners have is hardly sufficient to comprehend rival viewpoints that come to the fore in situations like Chapra. I am not pleading the case of the police for an additional slot in the Centre. I do not think an opening in the E.C. is all that glamorous for officers of the Indian Police Service (IPS) to make a bee-line to it. This is an essentially functional requirement that is dictated by the current dynamics of conducting free and fair elections. A senior IPS officer who had a long stint in the Intelligence Bureau was appointed as a commissioner in the E.C. in late 1989 when it was decided to have a multi-member commission. On the revocation of this decision within months - one that smacked of political vendetta - the police officer was eased out!

Conducting elections is a tricky business. Reputations built over decades are vulnerable and easily destroyed from political caprice. Hence the choice of commissioners will have to be more judicious. Fortunately, we have until now had no rank bad appointment, and governments have carried the Opposition with them through a process of consultation. The future is, however, uncertain, considering that the political scene is becoming murkier.

How do we protect the system in the days to come from political vagaries? I will go to the extent of suggesting that the President himself choose them, independent of the Executive and from a panel of outstanding civil servants with excellent credentials in the area of public administration. I do not expect political opinion across parties to favour this drastic change in procedure. If my reading of the Constitution is right, this will not require any amendment. After all, the CEC and other commissioners are already, on paper, appointed by the President himself. The catch is the President’s choice is restricted to those in the panel presented by the Executive. I am fully conscious that what I suggest is violative of the spirit of the Constitution, which prescribes only a titular role for the President, who will necessarily have to act on the advice of the Executive. But we have had Presidents in the past who did exceed their ceremonial role in crises and in furtherance of public interest. Whether any future incumbents of this high office will arrogate solely to himself this authority to decide on the composition of the E.C., the most important organ of our set-up, next only to the Supreme Court, is a matter of conjecture.

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