By Shyam Khosla
Supreme Court order invalidating the Election Commission's(EC) decision to prepone by three days the counting of votes in Haryana is a setback for the Commission not because it is a major decision, but for the fact that it is for the first time in Independent India'shistory that the apex court thought fit to interfere with the work of the EC when the electoral process is on. While it is hard to defend Haryana Chief Minister'sscathing attack on the functioning of the Commission, particularly on one of its members by name, the Chief Minister has a point when he questions the prolonging of the electoral process for months during which development and administration suffer.
Granted that the Commission didn'twant the Haryana results to influence voters in the other two states-Bihar and Jharkhand-there is no plausible reason that prevented the EC to fix polling dates in Haryana along with the third round of polling in the other two states. Om Prakash Chautala, who appears to be on his last legs as Chief Minister, made an astounding charge that someone from the Commission-a member or an observer appointed by the EC-had requested for allotment of a plot of land out of the Chief Minister'sdiscretionary quota. This is a serious matter and can'tbe dismissed as an outburst of a frustrated politician. It is in the interest of the EC'sown credibility and moral authority that it should ask for a CBI enquiry into the matter. If the allegation is true, the guilty official must be brought to book. If it is proved that the charge was false, Chautala must be made to pay for lowering the dignity of the Commission.
The Commission'sbrave efforts to transform itself from a mere department of the government-that it appeared to be during the first three decades of its functioning-to a powerful constitutional authority-that it was perceived to be by the founding fathers of the Constitution-have been welcomed by all those who believe that free and fair polls are essential for making democracy a success. In the process, however, many a CEC has behaved rather erratically to send across a strong message that they wanted to run the country during the elections. This is totally unacceptable. There is no substitute for elected representatives in running the government in a democracy, whatever the failures of the political class.
The EC'scase is that staggered polls enable it to deploy para-military forces in sufficient strength to prevent booth capturing and rigging during elections. To some extent, this is a valid point. Equally valid is the perception that staggered polls enable goons recruited by certain experts in rigging elections, as the former can move from one area to the other to rig elections.
There have been numerous instances of the EC using intemperate language against the elected representatives of the people and senior officials of the government. Almost all members of the successive Commissions were civil servants who appeared to have developed aversion to the political class for whatever reason. Seshan and Lyngdoh were abrasive and behaved as if they were super lords. Some of them may have been ?loyalists? while others may have been treated badly by their political masters. Be that as it may. No one can be allowed to use his position and office to avenge his personal grievances. Everyone, including the constitutional authorities, needs to follow the well laid out norms and codes of behaviour.
Staggered polls were understandable in the initial stages of our democratic experience but they don'tjell well with our image of a modern and efficient democracy. The EC'scase is that staggered polls enable it to deploy paramilitary forces in sufficient strength to prevent booth capturing and rigging during elections. To some extent, this is a valid point. Equally valid is the perception that staggered polls enable goons recruited by certain experts in rigging elections, as the former can move from one area to the other to rig elections. The experience in the post-Emergency elections held in 1977 was that simultaneous elections throughout the country didn'tgive much scope to the ruling clique to rig elections in its favour, though it was desperate to hang on to power.
There is no question about the army and security forces being locked up in a prolonged and bitter fight with separatists and terrorists in various parts of the country. However, it is inconceivable that the government can'tspare an adequate number of trained personnel to maintain law and order if the polling were to be held throughout the country simultaneously. It is a matter that requires wide-ranging discussions and planning. THe EC should aim at simultaneous elections on a single day so that the electoral process is not unduly prolonged.
The Election Commission'sjob is to conduct free and fair polls in a peaceful atmosphere. The Commission rightly enforces the code of conduct to prevent ruling parties from abusing their powers to influence the voters. But at times, the EC has gone overboard to issue orders that adversely affect governance and administration. There have been cases when the EC refused permission to go on with the second or third phase of a project after the completion of the first phase on the plea that it would violate the code of conduct. The EC can'tact as a stumbling block to development works, particularly during phased out election schedules.
One can appreciate the need to evolve a consensus or enact a law saying all state governments must quit on the eve of Assembly elections and the polls should be conducted under President'srule. Of course, this would discriminate against parties that are in power in states and not at the Centre. Therefore, the need is to evolve a system where Central rule is not transformed into the government by the party in power at the Centre.
Let there be a national debate on the issue and let the political class evolve a broad consensus on how to conduct elections that are absolutely free and fair. But in no case the EC should be allowed to assume powers to run the country during the elections. The moral code of conduct also needs to be given a legal shape by enacting a law. This is of paramount importance because of the widely-held perception that successive Election Commissions have been soft on the Congress and its allies and harsh on parties opposed to them. Maybe the Congress that has ruled the country for the better part of the last century has obliged civil servants that get promoted as members of the EC or the government employees still look towards the Congress as ?mai baap?.
There are countless instances to prove the charge of EC'sbias in favour of the Congress. Lalu'snotes-for-votes and his attempt to arouse communal passions with the made-to-order Godhra report did attract EC'sattention but there was hardly any action. Warnings followed warning but there was no action to prevent the brazen violations of the code of conduct. This Commission barks at the Congress and its allies but seldom bites.