Last Saturday Law Minister Mr. Salman Khurshid affirmed that the Election Commission (EC) was fully autonomous. This belated acknowledgment did not resolve the issue. Earlier the contentious issue about the functioning of the EC had resurfaced. The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Mr. SY Quraishi had questioned Mr. Khurshid on several issues. During the exchanges through media between the Law Minister and the CEC Mr. Khurshid said that "every institution is under some control" and the Election Commission was under the Law Ministry’s control. He was wrong of course.
The EC is under the control of law, not of the Law Ministry.
Mr. Khurshid went on to clarify that for administrative purposes such as sanctioning foreign trips the CEC required clearance from his Ministry.
Did not the mere reference to such administrative control betray political propensity to exert pressure if required?
Mr. Quraishi observed that it was important for the EC to maintain the perception of impartiality in order to function effectively. The statement of the Law Minister eroded that perception. Consequently the CEC wrote a letter pointing this out to the Prime Minister (PM). The PM responded by assuring the CEC in a letter that the government respected the Constitutional status and “functional autonomy” of the Election Commission. Sources in the EC ask what precisely is meant by “functional autonomy”.
And that brings us to the nub of the problem that continues to bedevil Indian politics and continues to be evaded alike by Indian politicians and jurists.
One cannot say whether Indian politicians are dumb or dishonest. But their continued silence over questions repeatedly raised in these columns provokes that question. How can the letter and spirit of the Constitution regarding the “functional autonomy” of the EC, and indeed of all Constitutional bodies, be observed except by making these directly accountable to the President as is indicated in our written Constitution? Thereby the cabinet and the government would not exercise control over these bodies because there could arise frequently a conflict of interest. Only the President who is above the day to day functioning of the executive would exercise such control.
The problem with allowing the President to exercise his responsibility in this matter is that it would open the door to all the functions that devolve on the office according to our written Constitution. And that would spell goodbye to our Westminster system of governance as we know it. This systemic problem will recur with increasing frequency. This space will be used to raise this question with repeated doggedness. Unless people recognize that our political system has failed and needs urgently to be reformed by reclaiming our Constitution both in letter and in spirit the crisis of governance will not abate.