The Election Commission of India is an autonomous constitutional authority accountable for administering election processes in the country. However, the Commission finds itself at the receiving end of allegations by the Congress, which has termed it as a “captive puppet” of the Bharatiya Janata Party and accused it of acting in a partisan manner in favour of the ruling dispensation.

The insinuation is that since the Chief Election Commissioner, A.K. Joti, had worked as principal secretary to Narendra Modi when he was Gujarat Chief Minister and was also the Chief Secretary of the state, he was reluctant to take cognisance of the Congress complaint. The Congress has claimed that the Prime Minister had breached the model code of conduct after casting his vote on Thursday by holding a road show.

In sharp contrast, the Commission had registered an FIR against TV channels that had aired Rahul Gandhi’s interview after the campaigning was over, while no action had been initiated against those who showed Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and BJP president Amit Shah for making charges against the Congress in interactions with different television stations so as to propagate their views. The BJP, has reacted by calling the Congress “bad losers”, who were unable to face defeat both in Himachal and Gujarat.

The trading of charges between the two principal parties on the issue of neutrality of the Election Commission could set in motion a dangerous trend where those appointed to the august body would have to constantly face the neutrality test. The present Election Commission, besides A.K. Joti, has two other members—O.P.Rawat and Sunil Arora. All the three belong to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and have outstanding track records. However, during the course of their career, the trio happened to serve powerful politicians belonging to the ruling party. Thus, their professional rivals and Congress politicians have branded them as pro-BJP bureaucrats, a matter which definitely does not take into account the meritorious service rendered by them to their respective states and the country. It was perhaps, a coincidence that Rawat was the principal secretary to two Madhya Pradesh Chief Ministers, Uma Bharti and Babulal, and concurrently enjoyed a comfortable rapport with BJP politicians and RSS functionaries. Similarly, Sunil Arora, who carved a name for himself while heading the Indian Airlines, was the principal secretary to the late Rajasthan Chief Minister, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. In bureaucratic and political circles, the post-retirement assignments are being viewed as a pay-off for their contribution to their political patrons.

However, this is not the first time that a controversy over the appointment of the Election Commissioners has arisen. In 2005, shortly after the Congress led UPA came to power, Navin Chawla, former Information and Broadcasting Secretary was appointed to the Commission as a member. At the time, the BJP was quick to protest, as Chawla was considered close to the Gandhis, and therefore demanded his removal. Petitions were made to the President of India, but Chawla survived and subsequently won accolades for successfully conducting the polls in Jammu and Kashmir, as in other places including the 2009 Parliamentary elections. Similarly, his predecessor N. Gopalaswami was an appointee of the NDA government and is believed to have been on L.K. Advani’s staff when he was the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting during the Morarji Desai government.

The short point is that since the elections are conducted by the Commission, it is paramount that it should not only act fairly but appear to be equally judicious and above board. When political parties begin questioning the credibility of the referees, it is not only unfortunate, but can be likened to uprooting the foundation of our democracy. In this context, political parties must comprehend that in his famous story “Panch Permeshwar”, noted Hindi writer Munshi Premchand drove home the point that once a person occupies a position of judicial responsibility his or her world view automatically is altered and one acts instinctively in a neutral manner.

If Joti and his colleagues are under siege by the Congress, it perhaps is because certain events preceding the ongoing Assembly polls did not sit well with the political class. Their judgement of delaying the notification for the Gujarat polls, while declaring the schedule for the Himachal elections was questioned by the BJP’s adversaries, who stated that this had been done to give more time to the saffron brigade to prepare themselves before the model code of conduct came into effect. This underlying suspicion would have been outright dismissed had the three gentlemen not been associated with powerful politicians in their respective states. Thus, from day one itself, the Election Commission needlessly allowed itself to be put under close scrutiny.

It is obvious that the acrimony over the conduct of the Election Commission may not end with the announcement of the results, but dissatisfied parties could possibly move court to seek justice. The bottom line is that Parliament and the Apex Court must protect this sacred institution and lay down certain norms that should be observed in the appointment of the members of the Commission. The EC, like Caesar’s wife, should be above suspicion. It is one institution that people still repose their faith in and by no means should its credibility be eroded. At the same time, the three Election Commissioners must be respected and their decisions should be accepted by one and all. Between us.

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