The post and the person: on strengthening the EC
Mains Paper 2: Polity
Prelims level: Election Commission
Mains level: Statutory, regulatory and various quasi-judicial bodies Government
policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising
out of their design and implementation
The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court is
examining a public interest litigation (PIL) that could be critical for
Indian democracy. The PIL, which seeks the strengthening of the Election
Commission of India (ECI), includes a proposal to create an independent
mechanism to appoint the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Election
Commissioners (ECs) who are, at present, simply appointed by the government
of the day, without any defined criteria or processes.
Three critical decisions
That electoral democracy became a reality in India
owes a great deal to the foresight of the Constituent Assembly.
However, the Assembly could not have anticipated the
extent to which the very political class that framed the Constitution would
later attempt to subvert it.
As this political dynamic unfolded, at certain crucial
junctures, the judiciary and the leadership of the ECI saved democracy.
When the Constituent Assembly debated how free and
fair elections should be ensured, three important questions arose.
Free and fair elections
The first was whether free and fair elections should
be made a part of fundamental rights or an independent institution, outside
the executive, should be established to conduct the elections.
The Assembly opted for the latter and created the ECI.
With legal back up and the resources to develop and
enforce a transparent electoral system, the ECI made free and fair elections
Single centralized body for election
It was to have a single, centralised body for
elections to the Lok Sabha and State legislatures.
One proposal was that the ECI be confined to federal
elections, and separate institutions be set up to conduct elections to State
However, with increasing tension among communities,
the Assembly feared partisan action in the States and opted for a single
national institution, the ECI. The implications of this decision were
On the one hand, Central institutions have generally
been more robust than State institutions.
State Election Commissions lack autonomy, are short on
manpower and funds, and are frequently subject to attempts by State
governments to manipulate elections.
On the other, this decision could have led to an
autocratic institution being established and possibly manipulated by
powerful national actors.
This possibility was contained because elections
became subject to judicial review.
Originally, the Constitution had provided for
tribunals set up by the ECI to hear election petitions.
But aggrieved parties approached the courts, and the
courts decided to hear election petitions.
The ECI itself recommended that election petitions be
heard by the judiciary, and in 1966, the law was changed accordingly.
Independence of the ECI
The third question concerned ensuring the independence
of the ECI.
As the manner of appointment of the CEC and ECs was
debated, Shibban Lal Saxena presciently argued that while the then Prime
Minister was a man of independence.
This may not always be the case, and proposed
ratification of the CEC’s appointment by the legislature.
The Assembly disagreed, and provided simply for the
CEC to be appointed by the President, leaving it to the legislature to enact
a suitable law, which never happened.
The Constituent Assembly did provide, though, that the
CEC could only be removed through impeachment.
For the ECs, even this safeguard was not provided,
which is also a subject of the above-mentioned PIL.
A major shortcoming
The history of elections shows that this remains a
major shortcoming of the ECI.
From 1967 to 1991, the election process deteriorated
as the Congress lost its dominance, political competition intensified, and
political actors stepped up violence and electoral malpractices.
The ECI could not arrest this deterioration. Several
State governments made large-scale transfers on the eve of elections and
posted pliable officials in key positions, who sometimes flouted the ECI’s
This deterioration could have continued. Instead,
during the 1996 general election, the ECI restored the credibility of the
The CEC, T.N. Seshan, reinterpreted the ECI’s role and
powers, and provided combative, forceful leadership. He publicly reprimanded
politicians for violating the Model Code of Conduct, postponed/ cancelled
elections if their credibility was compromised, intensified supervision of
elections, and insisted on action against errant officials. Because of
constitutional safeguards, he could not be removed. But the ECI got the
right leadership accidentally, not by design.
Though the ECI has since become an institution of some
authority, there have been controversies over appointments of ECs,
allegations of partisanship, and new problems such as of voter bribery and
paid news, which the ECI has not been able to address so far.
As history shows, inadequate leadership is the bane of
our public institutions.
Safeguards to ensure that ethical and capable people
head them are crucial.
Q.1 With reference to Office of Profit, consider the following statements:
1. It is defined in the Indian Constitution.
2. The opinion of Election Commission is binding on President if a question
to disqualify a member on ground of holding office of profit.
3. Recently, first time in India MLAs were disqualified on the ground of holding
office of profit.
Which of the statements given above is/are correct?
(a) 2 only
(b) 1, 2 and 3
(c) 1 and 3 only
(d) 3 only
Q.1 Why safeguards are needed to ensure that institutions like the Election
Commission are headed by capable people?