Home >opinion >In defence of the Election Commission

The fracas over the Gujarat poll dates has been unedifying. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has done itself no favours. In the time between the announcement of the election dates for Himachal Pradesh, and Wednesday, when the Gujarat dates were announced, the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has come up with a raft of sops and schemes. This is not a good look for the ECI. Former chief election commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy has rightly called it an avoidable controversy. Given the circumstances, opposition disgruntlement is understandable. But there is a significant—if semantically small—gap between such displeasure and accusing the ECI of actively colluding with the BJP, as the Congress has done.

Political scientist Devesh Kapur has bracketed the ECI with the presidency and judiciary as one of the Indian state’s three “institutions of restraint". This is rarefied company indeed. Public opinion tracks Kapur’s assessment. The comprehensive three-year State of Democracy in South Asia project begun in 2004 found that the ECI stood second only to the army among state institutions when it came to public trust.

There is substantive reason for such trust. As with so many foundational aspects of the state, the liberal democratic instincts of the Constitution’s framers, who established the ECI as a constitutional body and gave it a robust mandate—and of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who scrupulously guarded that mandate and the ECI’s authority—have stood the country in good stead. That said, the ECI has taken time to come into its own. In the post-independence decades when the Congress dominated at the Central and state levels, the body was, if not collusionary, certainly accommodating. It would take until 1987, when then chief election commissioner (CEC) R.V.S. Peri Sastri broke from the tradition of the government telling the CEC when to hold polls, for the ECI to begin turning the corner.

Come 1991 and the Haryana government was not pleased with T.N. Seshan. The new CEC was taking on all comers. In a clash over pre-poll transfer orders, Seshan announced that “when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, one has to yield". Then came the kicker: “I am going to apply irresistible charm." The irreverence and chutzpah neatly summed up Seshan’s tenure at the helm of the ECI. Bureaucrats are not usually the stuff of folklore; Seshan managed it with his brash expansion of the ECI’s activism and authority. This was partly to the good. Black money and muscle power were serious problems in the electoral process by this point. In pushing back, Seshan established the ECI as a moral authority.

His activism was also, however, partly to the bad. There was more than a whiff of his being enamoured of his own legend in his confrontational approach. The power an unelected authority wields in a democracy must have certain limits. Seshan seemed to overlook this point all too often. The political establishment hit back in 1993 when the P.V. Narasimha Rao government appointed two additional election commissioners (ECs) to dilute Seshan’s power.

Seshan’s immediate successors as CEC, M.S. Gill and then J.M. Lyngdoh, built upon Seshan’s legacy, if more discreetly. The ECI’s stature had risen by then to the point that when Lyngdoh took on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government by delaying early polls in Gujarat the summer after the Godhra riots—he rightly held that the electoral process would be too tainted by communal tension—he won the day. In their potted history of the ECI in Rethinking Public Institutions In India, E. Sridharan and Milan Vaishnav make the important point that when the Vajpayee government attempted to reassert itself in 2004 by bringing in retiring cabinet secretary T.R. Prasad to succeed Lyngdoh, superseding the two ECs, the latter’s threat to resign stopped the move—because “by now, it had become very important for the ruling party of the day to not be seen as attempting to undermine the ECI’s authority".

This gets to the heart of the ECI’s role in the Indian political system. Its normative authority lends legitimacy to a political establishment that has often struggled for public trust. The prickly independence that irks political parties also sustains them. For this, the executive, legislature and judiciary must all share the credit. Even with numerous confrontations, they have conspired to protect the ECI’s authority—a welcome display of institutional wisdom.

The ECI is still a work in progress. It has stumbled badly at times. The ugly spat in 2009 between then CEC N. Gopalaswami and EC Navin Chawla, with the former recommending the latter’s removal on grounds of partisanship, damaged the institution’s credibility. And its seeking contempt powers earlier this year was an egregious overstepping of bounds worthy of Seshan. Structurally, the ECs’ lack of protection from summary removal, such as the CEC enjoys, is a vulnerability. The body’s enforcement of the model code of conduct depends largely on moral suasion. Likewise, for all the sterling work it has done in bringing about greater transparency regarding candidates’ criminal records and the like, numerous loopholes remain.

But by and large, the ECI functions effectively as a deterrent in India’s political system. Political parties play along even when it inconveniences them because they understand that they will some day require the protection it affords weaker actors from the stronger—those in power. They should remember this when they are tempted to undermine its authority.

Has the Election Commission been successful in running free and fair elections? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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