Sunday, December 10, 2023

Gelding the Election Commission?

At the last moment, the Narendra Modi government drops the Bill to modify service conditions of Chief Election Commissioners and Election Commissioners in the face of protests. Here’s how it can impact democracy in India

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By Vikram Kilpady

Unlike Mohammed Siraj, who nearly got a hat-trick in the Asia Cup finals in September against Sri Lanka in his six-wicket haul, the Narendra Modi-led NDA government looked set to accomplish the feat when it came to tinkering with both quasi- and fully autonomous bodies of Bharat/India, say reports. After dissolving the Planning Commission and renaming its remains the Niti Aayog, and fiddling with the Right to Information Act to weaken the Central Information Commission, it was to be the Election Commission’s turn to be neutered.

The government had tabled the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service, Term of Office) Bill, 2023, on August 10 in the Rajya Sabha. If one looked up news reports of the day, the headlines had noted that the Appointments Committee to decide on CECs and Election Commissioners would now comprise the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and a Cabinet Minister.

The Bill was to be taken up in the Special Session that started on September 18, but the government withdrew it, following largescale protests. The Winter Session still lies ahead, though, and there are possibilities for further modification to the proposed legislation, to placate the protesters.

The Bill was expected after the Supreme Court verdict on March 2, 2023, mandated the Appointments Committee for Election Commissioners would also comprise the Chief Justice of India. The order came in a petition highlighting the lightning speed with which Election Commissioner Arun Goel was appointed to the Commission.

The Bill, however, rankled quite a few people who have served at the helm in Nirvachan Sadan, the headquarters of the Election Commission of India, and those of the non-partisan establishment. Most Indians are comfortable with the notion (and not just a plain boast) that India is the largest democracy, and to add to it, the mother of democracy. The Election Commission’s handling of elections in the country, be it to the Lok Sabha or the state assemblies, and keeping them free and fair is one of the prime reasons for such hoary slogans.

The Bill dropped from the Special Session doesn’t do anything drastic if one goes by the naked eye. Till now, the CEC and the Election Commissioners were treated on par with Supreme Court judges, giving them an exalted position within the bureaucracy, which also underlines their non-partisan nature and the ability to call a spade a spade even if the ruling party insists it is a wheelbarrow.

But the Bill suggested they be aligned with the topmost bureaucratic position in the Government of India, that of the Cabinet Secretary. While the post is indeed creme de la creme, a Cabinet Secretary is still answerable to the Cabinet. By reducing the stature of CECs and ECs to that of a bureaucrat answerable to the Government of India, the autonomous stature of the institution will be put to question. Further, given that the Cabinet Secretary himself vets names to the Election Commissioner shortlist for the Appointments Committee to select the chosen few, conflict of interest has also not been ruled out.

Ahead of the Special Session, a newspaper report said three former CECs were going to write to PM Modi against the proposed move since it would impinge on the Commission’s non-partisan nature. Unidentified government officials quoted in the report dismissed the fears and spoke on how the CECs and ECs would be slightly below a Supreme Court judge in the order of seating at ceremonial occasions. They didn’t hasten to address fears that equating them with the top bureaucrat would end up placing them firmly under governmental control.

The Election Commission has itself been under a cloud over the destruction of Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, even before the stipulated one year from the date of election had elapsed. Critics and the media have questioned the poll body on its hurry to dispose of the VVPAT slips within four months of the 2019 election. Under the VVPAT scheme, five polling stations in an assembly constituency will have the facility where a paper slip will note the voter’s choice. If there is a dispute, the VVPAT slips will take precedence over the results shown by the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM).

As recently as last week, the EC opposed 100% VVPAT for elections on a petition of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) seeking free and fair elections. The EC affidavit said such an exercise will delay the result from the current one-day results to a six-day marathon. It also said it is almost like going back to the paper ballot system that existed before the advent of EVMs.

The EC affidavit said the ADR plea to increase the number of VVPAT verification was misconceived and devoid of merits. It said the petition is yet another attempt to cast doubt over the functioning of EVMs/ VVPATS on vague and baseless grounds.

On the proposed Bill to re-assign CECs and Election Commissioners to Cabinet Secretary level from their current Supreme Court judge level, the Congress had stoutly opposed the move. At its Congress Working Committee met in Hyderabad, Telangana, party chief Mallikarjun Kharge told the media that the EC’s independence would be severely damaged by the proposals. Kharge wondered if the move was being thought of to completely subordinate the EC to the wishes of the ruling party.

While saying the party will oppose the One Nation, One Election scheme, Kharge said his party will resist any move to push in a new Constitution or rejig the basic structure of the Constitution. Other opposition parties have been vociferous in communicating their unhappiness with the summoning of the sudden Special Session of Parliament.

Speaking at the end of the CWC meet, Kharge had the ears of the assembled media. But are the voters taking heed? The Opposition has been at pains to communicate and convince the electorate that the Modi government has belittled institutions in its avarice for greater control over the landmass. It raised the use of the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation to browbeat opposition politicians, who, the Opposition claimed, were absolved of their sins once they joined the BJP. Similarly, the influencing of key Opposition leaders to shift allegiance, some with a party split, some without, thanks to inner party democracy, has also worried the parties.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Opposition could not win the favour of the people, barring a few strongholds of regional parties, and lacked a distinct national flavour. Of course, the Opposition credited the 2019 verdict as the fallout of the strong response from the Modi government to the Pulwama suicide attack on CRPF personnel.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha 2024 elections, several ideas are competing for space, like the holding of simultaneous elections to Parliament and to the assemblies, the shadow-boxing with the proposal to rename India as Bharat, and the Sanatana Dharma controversy. The whittling away at the powers of the Election Commission via new service rules comes into sharper focus since there is a stronger and far-more-united Opposition voice this time around.

The success or the failure of the Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra’s phase 1 saw Karnataka plumping for the Congress and a similar result is expected by the party faithful in Telangana. The attempt to reinvigorate the party workers from the West to East axis will also be attempted in the proposed second phase of the Yatra. With the Congress on a seeming high, and various parties coming together under the Indian National Democratic Inclusive Alliance (INDIA.), their attempts at sorting out the factors that prevented their coming together in 2019 may possibly have gotten the BJP to look for familiar fine print tools.

The recently concluded G20 leadership summit and the success of arriving at a consensus on the joint declaration without ruffling Russia or China, has the government believing it stands at a turning point. Foreign leaders may not have realised that they played bit parts in the G20’s success being dressed up as a massive diplomatic win crafted by the wiles of Vishwaguru India.

The domestic constituency now has to digest the high-voltage campaign that is certain to follow. India at the head of world powers is quite a heady brew to be sold to the unemployed and the hungry. The old Sangh Parivar cocktail still works, see the continuing spread of communal tension in Haryana, sparked in Nuh with a yatra peopled by gaurakshaks, one of whom is wanted for the murder of two Muslim men in Rajasthan. The unending ethnic violence in Manipur, despite the central government and the Supreme Court being seized of the matter, is the state of the rule of law in the Northeastern state, now a lab for majoritarianism.

Apart from communal violence and majoritarianism, there are many other issues for the Opposition to appeal to voters in 2024. But like in cricket, and in all sports, if the umpire or the referee is himself beholden to one team, it will be just another fixed match.

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