In the midst of a growing cloud of doubt over the credibility of the Election Commission of India (ECI), the words of praise from former President Pranab Mukherjee must surely provide for a breather. He is perhaps one of the few existing political stalwarts, as it were, who has literally seen the formation of the commission and the changes that it has undergone over the years.
The former Indian President who was once described as “a man who does his homework and arithmetic to the teeth” by none other than former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno A Sangma (during a conversation at his Tura home) has a clear message that we should not to allow perception battles to trivialise a time-tested institution such as the Election Commission of India.
This is what he said: “If we want to strengthen institutions, we have to keep in mind institutions, which are serving well in the country. If democracy has succeeded, it has succeeded largely due to perfect conduct of elections by the Election Commissioner starting from Sukumar Sen in 1951 to the present EC commissioners.”
But at the same time, he also reminds of how the Indian executive plays a very distinctive and important role in appointing all the election commissioners till date. He also did not stop forth from suggesting “a different mode of choosing the members of the commission”, though it wasn’t entirely clear as to whether he was referring to a broader collegium comprising members outside the executive, as is the case many developing democracies.
However, what can be surmised from the former President’s comments is that under the given structure it would be unfair to demonise the current Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora and his team of commissioners for some of the decisions that were made or not made during the course of the recent Lok Sabha polls.
Take the case of the recusal by election commissioner Ashok Lavasa who was clearly not in favour of the ruling that the CEC and other commissioners made on the MCC violations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. Lavasa’s suggestion to send a notice to Modi and Shah has to be weighed against the other possible hard decisions that the commission would be made to take. What if someone argued that the TMC should have been banned as a political party for violence and mayhem it has unleased on voters and supporters and workers of other political parties, not to forget the booth rigging. From the panchayat polls to now, there are records across all forms of media, do we still need proof?
The other question that has had most concerned voters in Bengal and neighbouring states of Assam and Northeast talking is that the ECI has soft-pedalled issues of electoral violence and booth rigging by the TMC. Were the ECI to take actions against the TMC and also perhaps the BJP in many instances, elections in West Bengal would have to be suspended.
Instead, what the ECI did was go ahead with the polls and perhaps waited for complaints against acts that were deemed as violations. We are yet to hear of what decisions the ECI has taken against such complaints, but until that happens, let us not stop forth from praising the ECI managing to conduct the polls in the state with all the challenges that it threw up.
But this is not the first time that the Indian electoral landscape is seeing such aberrations. Former CECs have been under pressure and have been questioned for their decisions, even to the extent where it may have changed the outcome of an election.
The familiarity with the Indian electoral landscape and how the ECI has managed to wade through the challenges of various forms and hues, perhaps gives the confidence to former President and Congressman Mukherjee to praise the Indian Election Management Body (EMB) and also deliver the word of caution to political parties.
Pressures and the criticisms have dogged the election commissions of the past, not sparing even the likes of T N Seshan, known for the reforms in the Indian electoral landscape. Mukherjee was the Congress spokesperson during the elections (post Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination) when Janata Dal’s I K Gujral, the party’s nominee from Patna, said, “His intentions and his credentials have always been suspect.” Gujral had accused Seshan of vengeance because his cabinet had shunted Seshan from the top post of cabinet secretary as “he had politicised the office”. Gujral went on to become the Prime Minister of India (from April 1997 to March 1998) and has the track record of being one of the more respected.
In an article that appeared in the India Today June 30, 1991 issue, Alok Tiwari wrote about how “the Congress(I), however, takes a more charitable view of the CEC”. He quoted Mukherjee as saying, “It is a different election and hence Seshan’s conduct cannot be compared to past CECS,” pointing to the lengthy electoral process, violence, and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
The writer also mentions about how the talks of cosiness between Seshan and the Congress were dismissed as “canard” by Mukherjee who in fact said his party too was “unhappy with Seshan on the long postponement of elections and the way he is going on ordering a repoll in booths weeks after the polling”.
Mukherjee was privy to the developments in 1993 when the then Narasimha Rao government revoked the decision of the National Front Government (which came to power in 1990) to remove two commissioners in addition to the CEC. This was seen as a move aimed at clipping the wings of TN Seshan.
However, what makes the current different from the past is the attitude towards the ECI and the refrain from politicisation of the institution. The political dispensations in the 90s and after may not have agreed with a certain CEC or the commission, but they kept the dissensions to themselves and not allow it to disrepute the institution. Today, with the social media and the mainstream media at our disposal just about all kinds of aspersions are being labeled against the ECI.
Perhaps this draws up the difference between now and then, which allowed the likes of a Seshan to bring in reforms with a sense of ruthlessness, even in face of stiff opposition from his critics. “While his ruthlessness is not doubted, his claim to fairness is bitterly contested by critics, writes Tiwari, adding, “His moves over the past couple of months have appeared to be at best hasty and at worst motivated. The decision to hear the BJP symbol case after the elections had been announced and then putting off the hearings in the face of agitation by the party was one such.”
Therefore, it comes as a surprise when you come across an article that makes a sweeping claim that legacy of former CECs like T N Seshan and J M Lyngdoh “lies in a shambles”. Monobina Gupta in her article in The Wire dated May 6 makes that doubtful claim while hailing T N Seshan and J M Lyngdoh as having established a distinguished place for themselves in the institution’s history.
“She also says that till not so long ago, the Election Commission was regarded as one of the few institutions that was doing its job with rigour and fairness. The process of cleaning up the electoral system began with TN Seshan, the 10th CEC, who helmed the commission from 1990 to 1996.
She is right in that the actual reforms of the EMB in Indian started with Seshan and was picked up later by Lyngdoh. There’s no dispute on that. The ECI has over the years come to be regarded as one of the most respected independent EMB globally. But where the writer misses out is her assessment of the former CECs under given situations. It is not that Seshan’s decisions were accepted as the gospel and were above controversies.
The idea here is to place a certain history of the ECI and its CECs in perspective and not engage in a slugfest on who was the better CEC. In a high intense electoral battle such as the current one, there’s bound to be different forms of perceptions and interpretations, but to demolish an institution with one stroke of a brush merely because the ruling hasn’t gone in your favour is extremely unfair. The yardstick to decide an EMBs independence cannot be based on how it does or does not favour a certain thought process or position against certain political figures or political parties or affiliations or ideologies.
There is also a dire need to understand that recent developments regarding electoral complaints are nothing new. Under the existing system CEC Arora’s decisions is not all alarming. So, the outcry in the media and calling showing him or the ECI in poor light is unfortunate to say the least. Unless the entire system is changed, and like it happens in other parts of the globe, where a third empire or a third eye in the form of special electoral courts, independent international and domestic election observers are involved, nay observers hand-picked by the ECI itself, pointing an accusing finger at the present ECI is meaningless.
And lastly, not to miss the controversies over the EVMs. From a very personal experience, it can be said that the situation for most political parties is like a blindfold hitting the target. Where party agents on the ground are more interested in sniffing around for controversies instead of diligently observing the process of polling and closing of polls and storage of the EVMs, it is not surprising that allegations and counter-allegations are ruling the roost. Until such time that happens the Indian electorate which turnouts out in large numbers, this time as much as 67.3%, to give their mandate will have to bear with such chaos and acrimony in the political discourse of India.
In all of this, it goes without saying what is paramount is to allow people the freedom to criticise the EC and not gag it anyway. But let’s not make it so personal that it becomes a case of the “not seeing the forest for the trees”.
(The author is a senior journalist who has spent most of his time working in Northeast India since 1990 and Asia and parts of Africa since 2006 where he spent considerable time working and cleaning elections and researching and writing on human rights and democratic transitions. He can be reached at email@example.com)