The credibility of the Election Commission of India (ECI)

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    In Context,

    A vital issue of national importance dominating the headlines for the last three days is the PIL in the Supreme Court regarding the autonomy and neutrality of the Election Commission of India (ECI).

    About the Election Commission of India

    • It is an autonomous constitutional authority responsible for administering Union and State election processes in India. 
      • It administers elections to the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, and State Legislative Assemblies in India, and the offices of the President and Vice President in the country. 
    • Its responsibilities and powers are prescribed in the Constitution of India under Article 324. 
    • Validity of Decisions:  The decisions of the Commission can be challenged in the High Court and the Supreme Court of India by appropriate petitions.
      •  By long-standing convention and several judicial pronouncements, once the actual process of elections has started, the judiciary does not intervene in the actual conduct of the polls.
      • The Supreme Court has repeatedly adjudged these powers to be absolute and unquestionable.
        • It has declared Article 324 to be the reservoir of all powers of the ECI and has repeatedly declared free and fair elections to be part of the basic structure of the Constitution.

    Progress 

    • For much of Indian democracy’s history, the ECI has performed very well, earning accolades not only from the citizens of India but the world. 
    • The track record of most CECs was exemplary in displaying independence and neutrality, with the courage to stand up to the government of the day and it was hoped that this trend would continue. 

    Issues 

    • The root of the problem lies in the flawed system of appointment of the Election Commissioners. 
      • They are appointed unilaterally by the government of the day.
    •  It’s important to recall B R Ambedkar’s statement to the Constituent Assembly that “the tenure can’t be made a fixed and secure tenure if there is no provision in the Constitution to prevent a fool or a naive or a person who is likely to be under the thumb of the executive”
    • Another systemic problem is uncertainty over the elevation of an Election Commissioner to the post of CEC, which makes them vulnerable to government pressure. 
      • They consider themselves on probation, always conscious of how their conduct is viewed by the government, which can exploit this fear.
    •  Since all three members have equal voting rights and all decisions in the commission are taken by the majority, the government can even control an independent-minded CEC through the majority voting power of the two Election Commissioners.
    • During the harrowing Covid second wave, the ECi had come under the scanner for allowing political parties to take out Assembly election rallies without adhering to Covid-19 safety protocols despite several judicial orders. 

    Suggestions 

    • There has been a demand for appointments through a broad-based consultation, as is done in most countries, including parliamentary scrutiny. 
      • The mechanism proposed is simple: A collegium consisting of the Prime Minister, leader of the Opposition (LOP) and the Chief Justice of India (CJI). 
        • This system is already in operation for the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner, Chief Information Commissioner and Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.
      •  This will obviate the possibility of allegations against the incumbent of being partisan to the government.
        •  Opposition parties would not be able to raise a finger against the incumbent since the LOP would be a party to the selection.
    • In its 255th Report, the Law Commission of India also recommended a collegium system for appointing Election Commissioners. 
    • Apart from the manner of appointment, the provision for the removal of Election Commissioners also needs correction. 
    • At present, only the CEC is protected from being removed (except through impeachment). 
      • this should have been extended to the other two Commissioners, who were added in 1993, as they collectively represent the ECI. 
      • That oversight will hopefully be corrected by the current Bench.
    • Equipped with so much power and authority, it is only expected that the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India would be fiercely independent and nonpartisan. 
    • Equipped with so much power and authority, it is only expected that the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India would be fiercely independent and nonpartisan. 
      • There has to be an institutional mechanism to ensure the independence and neutrality of the ECI. 

    Conclusion 

    • The recent questions raised about the ECI’s credibility are certainly worrying. 
      • One hopes that the Supreme Court will settle the issue for good as it has many other critical electoral reforms. It has been a guardian angel of democracy and has another chance to prove this.
    • the ECI itself needs urgent institutional safeguards to protect its autonomy. It is time that action is taken to depoliticise constitutional appointments and the EC empowered to de-register parties for electoral misconduct.
      •  It is a step needed towards restoring all-important public faith in the institution.

    Mains Practice Question

    [Q] Elections are the bedrock of democracy and the Election Commission of India’s credibility is central to democratic legitimacy. Comment