Monday, February 26, 2024

Let us retain structural neutrality on EC chiefs

Seventy-three years after the Indian Constitution came into force, establishing the Election Commission (EC) and deeming that appointments to it would be “subject to the provisions of any law made in that behalf by Parliament,” the government has moved a Bill to govern how the chief election commissioner (CEC) and other election commissioners are appointed. As an effort to plug a legal gap, the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, up for a Rajya Sabha nod, is welcome. It holds an opportunity to put the appointment process above reproach. For too long, many aspects of it have been too opaque, leading to accusations of bias and judicial proceedings. The EC, led by a CEC and two other commissioners, is much too critical a body for the functioning of India’s democracy and integrity of elections to leave exposed to charges of external influence.

In March, a Supreme Court judgement in response to a clutch of petitions challenging how top poll officials were given authority had put in place the mechanism of a selection committee formulated for impartiality. The court said the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Chief Justice of India (CJI) would decide the EC’s leadership—until the Centre came up with a law. Though it was an interim arrangement, the formula made it clear that such appointments could not be left to the sole discretion of the Executive. The idea was widely welcomed, for a panel on which the Judiciary held the balance of power would keep the process above political affiliations and protect polling from Executive overreach in the interest of democracy, which holds equality of all citizens sacrosanct. The new Bill, however, proposes a selection committee that would have a Union Cabinet minister nominated by the PM take the place of the CJI, tilting the scales decisively in favour of the ruling party. Further, this panel’s approach will probably remain cloaked in mystery, as the Bill allows it to “regulate its own procedure in a transparent manner.” It also states, “The Selection Committee may also consider any other person than those included in the panel by the Search Committee,” the latter being a group of senior officers who will put together a list of five names for the selectors to consider. As a ‘defect’ in this panel cannot be reason to set aside any appointment, it would be fully authorized to decide who heads the oversight of Indian elections.

If these proposals get enacted, it would be a missed chance to institutionalize neutrality while drawing back the curtains to let light shine on a key aspect of democracy. For the stability of our Constitutional order, every citizen must see electoral processes as independent, unbiased and above the political fray. India’s EC has long played a proactive role in conducting voter enrolment drives, adopting technology to minimize election fraud and so on, to secure people’s right to representation. Its dedication over the decades has meant that voters do not worry about rigged polls and we haven’t had any major crisis of results not being conceded by parties that lose (unlike the US). We must strengthen this record. While ballot exercises in the past may have had less clarity on their supervision than what the Bill offers, once the apex court has already presented us a neutral appointment formula, its abandonment by the ruling party only makes the politics of it piquant. Let’s retain structural neutrality.

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Updated: 13 Aug 2023, 09:43 PM IST

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