The status of Election Commissioners has apparently been downgraded from that of Supreme Court Judge to the one enjoyed by the Cabinet Secretary. The timing hasn’t surprised many as this haloed institution is already under enormous pressure.
When GVG Krishnamurthi, former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), passed away, a friend who messaged me about his demise, made a Freudian slip. He wrote to me, “Former Election Commission dead”.
I was struck by a tweet by Shantanu Nandan Sharma, Senior Editor, Economic Times, that would have otherwise gone unnoticed: “Had everything been routine, @AshokLavasa would have taken over as CEC today”.
REVERED NO MORE?
Along with the Indian Judiciary and the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC), Election Commission was one of the most revered institutions in the country. Now, questions are being asked about each of these institutions. Judiciary seems to have undone itself because no one had the courage to touch it.
Imagine a law passed almost unanimously by the Parliament (there was just one vote against the Bill to reform the selection process of Judges) was struck down by the Judiciary. It had asserted its authority in no uncertain terms. It can still do that. Perhaps it will. However, its credibility took a huge beating on account of a series of events in the recent past.
Who could have imagined that a group of sitting Supreme Court Judges would hold a press conference against the incumbent Chief Justice of India? And, get away with it. Anyone else would have been hauled for contempt of court.
To make matters worse, one of the Supreme Court Judges who had held the press conference was promoted as Chief Justice himself. He had, however, the mortification of facing sexual harassment charges that were subsequently withdrawn by the complainant who was herself then re-employed apparently as a consequence of a compromise. How can there be a compromise in such a situation? If what she alleged was true, action should have been taken against the Judge. And, if her allegations were false, she should have been charged with contempt and other crimes.
The same Judge sat in judgment on crucial and sensitive matter. He was ultimately rewarded with a Rajya Sabha nomination. Such ‘rewards’ are not new and have happened in the past. However, number, manner and timing of such rewards have severely dented the faith that people have in the Judiciary. Actions themselves are not as important as the message they convey. Here the message is loud and clear.
ECI CREDIBILITY TAKES A BEATING
T N Seshan brought the Election Commission to the fore. He has many critics as well but no one will doubt the impact that he made on this institution. I had the occasion to conduct one election in Lakhimpur-Kheri, UP, as District Magistrate when he was the Chief Election Commissioner. And, I could feel the impact he made.
The credibility of the Commission soared and continued to soar even after Seshan’s departure. His successors added value. There were indeed some unpleasant internal occurrences that also got highlighted in the public domain but the authority and the objectivity of ECI was never called to question.
Another isolated incident of a former Chief Election Commissioner joining a political party and then becoming a Central Minister was indeed unethical (though not illegal). It did dent the reputation of this august body a bit but the subsequent incumbents to this post held their head high.
The Election Commission of India now faces an unprecedented crisis of credibility. What happened to Ashok Lavasa lends grist to the rumour mills. He was made Election Commissioner after due diligence. If newspaper reports are to be believed, on occupying the position, he apparently chose to take ‘independent’ view on certain issues. Suddenly cases against his family members were opened up. Being the senior most, he would have been the logical choice to the post of CEC at a crucial time when state elections were to be held in some states. Ashok dithered but finally chose not to put up a fight and went on to join the Asian Development Bank. The message was again loud and clear. However, the credibility of ECI had taken a severe beating.
OBJECTIVITY OF ECI BEING QUESTIONED
There is an old adage: justice should not only be done but appear to have done. The decisions that the ECI takes are, on more occasion than not, difficult and sensitive ones. It can’t please anyone. In fact, the decisions should not be to please or displease. The objective has to be to carry out the process of elections objectively. This is what the ECI prided in and was known for.
There were never such allegations as are being made now (though some of them are ridiculous in nature) in the past. The objectivity of ECI is being questioned as never before. The manner in which state election were planned and rolled out in West Bengal left a lot to be desired. The need for having so many phases when country faces an unprecedented crisis was questioned. The ECI issued directives regarding adherence to COVID protocol but turned a blind eye towards their violation. The norms were ignored with impunity.
Those at the ECI have an unenviable job. It is a tough job. But it was always so. And, ECI managed to keep its neck above the water. However, Ashok Lavasa incident had not happened earlier. It happened. It can happen again. I have no doubt that the Election Commissioners would want to restore the sanctity and credibility of the institution. For doing this, they will first have to admit that something is amiss. However, even after admitting it, the key question is whether they have the spine to do what they think is correct. When T N Seshan did what he did, he didn’t require a new legislation. He used the existing rules to strengthen the structure.
However, it required guts and attitude. Do the present Commissioners have guts and attitude? Some people argue, perhaps unfairly, that they wouldn’t be where they are if they were perceived to have these attributes. So, are we in the process of losing another credible institution? Or, will it regain its glory?
This article was first published IndianMasterminds and written by Anil Swarup