Express View on Election Commissioner Bill: Judge, not secretary

The strength and resilience of institutions in a democracy derive from both legal provisions and a climate of respect and reciprocity. In a time, therefore, when the executive armed with a large mandate does not hesitate to weaponise it against political opponents and unelected institutions, the legislative move to downgrade the status of members of the Election Commission is disquieting.

A Bill listed for discussion in the Special Session of Parliament proposes to do just that. Currently, the poll monitors are treated as equivalent to Supreme Court judges. But a clause in the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, proposes to align the service conditions and salaries of the CEC and ECs with the Cabinet Secretary.

The issue is not so much about financial remuneration, but the signals that the Narendra Modi government intends to send out, when general elections are less than eight months away and a newly set up committee is examining the feasibility of the far-reaching and contentious proposal of holding simultaneous elections to state assemblies, local bodies and Parliament. By effectively demoting the ECs to the status of civil servants, the Bill limits their authority to discipline the political class, in case of violations, at a critical juncture. It is less than mindful, and respectful, of the poll monitor’s delicate and difficult task – of upholding protocols and norms in a scrupulously non-partisan manner in a diverse and intensely competitive democracy.

Most Read

Ridhi Dogra says it’s ‘unfortunate to play’ Shah Rukh Khan’s mother in Jawan: ‘He told me many times…’
India vs Sri Lanka, Asia Cup 2023 Final Highlights: Mohammed Siraj’s spell helps India win Asia Cup 2023

Article 324 of the Constitution empowers the EC to be independent and bestows on it the enormous responsibility to “superintend, control and direct elections”. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld and shored up these powers. Of course, the EC was not always the formidable referee that it is now. It came into its own in the 1990s, when the then CEC, T N Seshan, forcefully asserted its constitutional role in enforcing the rules of the game.

Today the institution’s well-deserved reputation for impartiality and fairness is an inextricable part of the legitimacy of India’s political-electoral system. Admittedly, in recent times, the Commission has invited questions when it has not risen to its own high standards — for instance, in the alacrity with which it seemed to echo the establishment’s narrative on revdis and put political parties on the mat on poll promises, its prevarication over halting the election campaign in West Bengal during the brutal second wave of the Covid pandemic till the Prime Minister had made his speech, or compliance with summons issued by a PMO official for an “informal interaction”. But those are aberrations in the arc of one of India’s most trusted institutions.

The EC has earned national and international esteem for ensuring that the poor, marginalised and women vote freely, without fear. The new Bill errs by not recognising and acknowledging the EC’s above-the-fray stature and role. The official argument that the “table of precedence” isn’t changed doesn’t wash. This isn’t about who sits in which chair in which row at an official function, this is about protecting the commission’s dignity and autonomy — critical to the health of a democracy. That’s why the government should rethink.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *