Election Commission Row can Cause its Credibility Serious Damage
The Election Commission, like the judiciary, has been a symbol of India's success as a democracy in a region of authoritarianism, unstable popular governments under the thumb of military juntas or embroiled in civil strife.
Right from the first election of 1952, the commission has ensured largely free and fair elections in a country of millions where illiteracy is also widespread. There were lapses, of course, notably for more than a decade from the late 1960s when ballot frauds, in the guise of takeover of polling booths by musclemen hired by candidates, marred the process.
But despite such failures, the defeat of powerful leaders, like Indira Gandhi in 1977, showed that if the voters made up their minds, they brushed aside all obstacles. What was noteworthy during this period was that the commission was a one-man show.
It is the introduction of a multi-member institution which can be said to be partly responsible for the present crisis, which has been caused by Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami's decision to call for the dismissal of his fellow commissioner Navin Chawla on grounds of bias.
The reason why the change to a three-member panel was made nearly four decades after the commission was set up has much to do with the longstanding desire of the Indian political class to bend all autonomous institutions to suit its own designs.
The first attempt to expand the commission in 1989 was rescinded within three months. It was a time of flux when power was passing from the Congress to its opponents after nearly a decade.
But the politicians, especially those belonging to the Congress, did not lose hope. The reason why a Congress government, on its return, added two more members to the commission in 1993 was too obvious to be camouflaged - it simply wanted to curb chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan, who made no secret of his disregard for political predilections.
It is the same unfortunate objective which made the Manmohan Singh government appoint Chawla as a commissioner in 2005 despite his controversial background dating back to the time of the Emergency when he was considered by the Shah Commission to be "authoritarian and callous".
If Chawla's suspected pro-Congress bias was bound to lead to protests by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the manner in which Gopalaswami has acted is also likely to raise questions about his pro-saffron inclinations.
It has taken him a long time to call for Chawla's dismissal although it was on the basis of his assurance that the BJP and the Samajwadi Party withdrew their petition against the latter from the Supreme Court in 2006.
However, as eminent jurist Fali Nariman has pointed out, the CEC's powers in this regard fall in a "grey area", for it is not certain whether his recommendations are binding on the government. The latter has already indicated that they are not.
But it is the curious timing of Gopalaswami's move which has raised questions, for if he had any misgivings about Chawla's role as a closet Congress man, he should have acted much earlier instead of on the eve of the general election. Now, this belated step will tend to help the BJP's campaign.
More than the legal intricacies and political one-upmanship, it is the impact on the commission's till now fairly pristine reputation which is a cause for worry. The concern will be all the greater because it is clear that the government has decided to brazen it out by appointing Chawla as the next CEC despite his background.
The Left is expected to be with the Congress in this respect although it had withdrawn support from the government last year over the signing of the nuclear deal.
It is obvious that when Chawla is at the helm, the commission's every move will be scrutinised for a possible pro-Congress angle. The resultant sniping by the two opposing political blocs cannot but undermine its standing in the public eye.
It will be a pity if that happens for it has taken a succession of tough-minded CECs to build up the commission's image. Foremost among them was the abrasive Seshan although his futile battles against the two appointees of the Narasimha Rao government - M.S. Gill and G.V.G. Krishnamurthy - made the Supreme Court regret the "unpleasant exchanges", which took place between the three of them in the CEC's chamber in 1993 since it showed the CEC and the two commissioners "in poor light".
For all his faults, however, Seshan ensured that the government would not be able to dictate terms to the commission. The same tradition of independence was carried on by J.M. Lyngdoh despite Chief Minister Narendra Modi's efforts to browbeat him following the Gujarat riots of 2002 by insinuating that he and Sonia Gandhi were part of a Christian "conspiracy" against the state.
The high standards set by Sukumar Sen, the first CEC, and by several others, including R.V.S. Peri Sastri, during whose tenure the first attempt was made to convert the commission into a multi-member body, may well come under a strain in the coming days.
Among the institutions whose credibility has suffered in recent years is the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), as its "failure" to prove former Jharkhand Chief Minister Shibu Soren's involvement in a murder case showed. If the Election Commission joins their ranks, both Gopalaswami and Chawla will be to blame.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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