It was a birthday party with a difference. The “kid” has behaved better than its parents. The homework has not been easy. And even when completed in time, no candy has been handed out. Now that surely calls for a cake.
On Monday, the Election Commission of India (EC), an institution a day older than the Republic, turned 60. There was all-round praise. Politicians, who have often accused EC of bias, were all praise for it on Monday. Its success in keeping democracy in running order is unquestionable.
Two factors, institutional and human, have worked in its favour. To begin with, India’s founding fathers wisely entrusted the task of conducting elections to a non-partisan, apolitical body. Had that not been the case, political events in India would have taken a very different turn.
Pakistan provides a contrasting example. The first election in that country, for the Punjab legislative assembly, witnessed blatant misuse of state machinery and administrative intervention on behalf of select candidates. That undermined the credibility of elections there from the start. In India, the rot began much later and never reached levels that could imperil democracy.
The second, equally vital, ingredient in this process has been human. From the time of Sukumar Sen, the first chief election commissioner (CEC), EC has been manned by persons of ability and integrity. There have been some slip-ups, no doubt, but these are aberrations that have never threatened the edifice.
What of the future? EC’s role and the environment in which it works is that of constitutional comfort, beyond the whims of capricious representatives it helps elect. With political coalitions being the flavour of the time, it is unlikely that this institutional order can be changed in a way that can harm democracy. Governments are often tempted to appoint “their” men to man the commission. But constitutional guarantees ensure that CECs turn out to be nobody’s fools. That game will continue, but the results are also clear: It will be a person of very poor quality who will turn partisan when he or she adorns the office of CEC.
The challenges to democracy lie beyond the portals of the commission.
ECI: a successful institution in a bleak institutional landscape? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org