The appointment of TN Seshan as the tenth Chief Election Commissioner in 1991 was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of India’s parliamentary democracy. He not only reinvigorated the Election Commission, but was also largely successful in curbing electoral malpractices in the country.
By cancelling or ordering re-polling in those areas where irregularities were reported, by taking strict action against those who were found guilty of dereliction of duty and by deploying paramilitary forces in sensitive areas, Seshan implemented the Election Commission's model code of conduct seriously and forced everyone to realise that this constitutional body can even bite.
By the time he quit the esteemed office in December 1996, he had set very high standards for his successors, who have, by and large, managed to maintain the sanctity of this constitutional body, which is responsible for holding free and fair elections in the world’s largest democracy.
In my view, all those who took over as CEC after Seshan, have succeeded in leaving their mark on the election process, though sometimes realising the need for a change in the political system through fair means, and sometimes with an over enthusiasm to do their job.
Barring one or two incidence of clash with the executive, the conduct of the election body has been largely unquestionable and within its brief. However, in this election season, the
EC and the central government are again on a collision course with several union ministers openly defying the model code of conduct and consequently facing the wrath of the constitutional body.
The clash between the two sides was further fuelled when it was reported that the Congress-led UPA government was mulling to clip the poll watchdog’s wings by giving statutory status to the model code of conduct during a meeting of the GoM on corruption.
Giving statutory status to the code would mean that cases of code violations would be covered by law, taking it out of the purview of the Election Commission.
The idea of according statutory status to the code was recently mooted by the Congress when it defended its senior leader Salman Khurshid after he faced the EC’s ire on the minority sub-quota issue. As expected, the issue snowballed into a major controversy with the Opposition blaming the government for hatching a ‘conspiracy’ to convert the election watchdog into a ‘toothless body’.
CEC SY Quraishi was quick to condemn any move to take away the poll body’s power and giving it to the courts pointing out that legal procedure would take years while politicians violating the code would enjoy the fruits of power.
Although, the UPA government’s biggest crisis manager and the chairman of GoM debunked the reports that there was any attempt to curb the EC’s authority, Khurshid kept the cards open by saying that the issue would be discussed once the Assembly elections were over.
Any attempt, whatsoever, to weaken the constitutional body will set a bad precedent and can lead to dangerous consequences. That’s why even the Supreme Court once ruled that the model code of conduct must be followed and the norms and rules set by the Election Commission must be respected. So despite a difference of opinion on the poll body’s constitutional powers and its purview, no one has ever crossed the ‘lakshmanrekha’ set by it.
Those who are opposing the code of conduct as ‘anti-development’, have forgotten that elections are held only at a time when the term of an elected government is about to expire. Hence the ruling party has ample time to implement any welfare initiative/scheme that holds good for its people.
Secondly, the model code of conduct, which remains effective only for two to three months, restricts any move, which can influence the voters. However, it does not have any impact on the on-going schemes and such initiatives that have a uniform impact on all parties. So there is no basis in arguments that the model code of conduct is anti-development and projecting the EC in a negative light.
It is high time - the political parties should ponder as to what is good for our democracy and suggest measures to end violation or misinterpretation of the Election Commission’s model code of conduct. One can easily imagine what would happen once the courts get the power to adjudicate whether a politician has violated the model code of conduct or not. The matter will drag on for years while the culprit will enjoy the fruits of power - hence according statutory status to the code will only benefit the violator and weaken the poll body.
The row over the EC has come at a time when the voices pressing for urgent electoral reforms have grown louder. It is beyond doubt that the EC has done a commendable job in all these years and initiated a number of laudable electoral reforms to strengthen our democracy.
Nonetheless, though, our election machinery deserves kudos for its exemplary work, several gaps and loopholes still need to be fixed. Corruption, entry of criminals and the foul play on the part of the political parties to win support of voters are some of the area that needs to be addressed. Such irregularities only encourage anti-social elements to enter the electoral fray. In order to end anomalies, we need to strengthen the hands of the EC and to give it more legal and institutional powers.
I hope that the political fraternity will refrain from making the EC a toothless body and empower it to punish the violators of the electoral laws.