On June 12, 1975, the Allahabad high court set aside the election of an incumbent powerful prime minister. It was a cataclysmic verdict. At the heart of the matter was the very fundamental requirement of a parliamentary democracy that no unequal advantage should accrue to any one candidate, group or party in an electoral contest. Though many historians since have thought that the Allahabad high court judgment was excessive and disproportionate, it nonetheless set in motion a desire to make our electoral democracy a fair proposition. That quest remains only partially achieved.
It may be worth recalling that our first general election was spread over four months, from October 1951 to February 1952. There was no code of conduct; the governments at the Centre and in the states carried on with their normal business. The Election Commission itself was a very limited affair. But no one doubted the fairness of the exercise; and India achieved one of the primary benchmarks of a democracy – the winners and the losers attested that the contest was fairly won or lost. But India was to change, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s India of 1952 to Indira Gandhi’s India of 1971. The political class had lost its post-independence legitimacy; political parties were deemed as brutal instruments of a brutal pursuit of power and the political leaders – including those who presided over the national seat of government – were perceived as power-hungry, selfish and self-aggrandising. Democracy was no longer deemed a gentleman’s game.
Once Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha from the Rae Bareli constituency in the March 1971 polls was set aside, the polity came to be deeply engaged with the idea of a level-playing field at election time. What was lacking was an empowered referee, someone who will have yellow and red cards in his hip pocket and will have the courage and the guts to send an offending player off the field. It was not until an alchemist, T.N. Seshan, came to Nirvachan Sadan and discovered the Election Commission’s karmic potential. The country applauded Seshan as he sought to enlarge the commission’s institutional autonomy, even if it meant taking on the political executive of the day. That search for autonomy and effectiveness remains a work in progress.
Irrespective of its constitutional mandate and despite periodic support from the Supreme Court, the Election Commission’s performance as an institution came to hinge critically on the quality of the leadership the three commissioners were able to provide. In a polity that was happily becoming more and more uncivil, more and more partisan, and more and more cantankerous, the Election Commissioners – till the other day pliant bureaucrats – found themselves in an unaccustomed role that demanded an exacting neutrality and detachment. Not all commissioners proved equal to the task. When a chief minister slyly suggested that because a chief election commissioner was named James Michael Lyngdoh he could not be a neutral umpire, the institutional prestige of the commission was sufficiently sturdy to stare down such an insinuation. But the commission’s prestige was not enhanced when a former chief election commissioner chose to accept a party’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha and then to become a central minister.
Every institution gets its mojo from the high priests who preside over it. So is the case at Nirvachan Sadan. Happily, the commission has acquired sufficient momentum that the commissioners’ individual failings and weaknesses rarely impinge on the commission’s institutional image of a robust guardian of the integrity of the electoral process. This is a major democratic consolidation. Yet it needs to be remembered that the Election Commission’s metamorphosis from a politicians’ lapdog to a pugnacious bulldog took place in the context of a weak political executive.
When the political executive is weak or allows itself to become weakened by its own decency and doubts or internal dissensions, it becomes easier for the other institutions to assert, even attempt to overreach themselves. But no institutional equilibrium remains cast in stone; when political power in society is redistributed, institutions find themselves having to renegotiate their place and their efficacy.
Since May 2014 when the electorate empowered a political party with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the constitution’s institutions are engaged in a silent struggle over their space. It is in this context of a contest between institutions that the role of the Election Commission has become a cause for concern. The controversy over EVMs is only the latest expression of this gathering disquiet.
The commission was duty-bound to speak up in defence of EVMs, though it spoke up rather testily. Perhaps the losers are simply being sore losers. But there was something less than reassuring in its response to reports of malfunctioning EVMs in various BJP-ruled states. The commission has put its faith in a certain technology; we should all be humble enough to understand that no technology is foolproof. If a doubt has arisen about EVMs, the commission has an obligation to go out of its way to put all doubts to rest.
It is not so much the inviolability of EVMs that has caused considerable disquiet among the various stakeholders; the rub rather is the perceived pusillanimity at Nirvachan Sadan. For instance, in the recent Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha elections, the commission was seen as both hapless and helpless in the face of numerous saffron excesses.
The challenge before the commission is to be vigilant and watchful against the collusion at the lower level of civil and police bureaucracy in favour of the ruling party of the day. Such collusion is a perennial possibility, just as it is a constant threat to the very idea of a level-playing field. All political parties end up trying to use unfair means; it is the commission’s job to create the necessary conditions and caveats to prevent unfairness.
As in the past, the present commission’s working, vigour and vitality would be deeply contingent upon the commissioners’ personal rectitude and fortitude, individual sense of vulnerability and strength. It is an imperceptible calculus – no outsider can ever be in a position to make a fair assessment of how wholesomely a decision was made at Nirvachan Sadan. The benefit of the doubt must always go to the commission. And this very institutional protocol imposes on the commission and its authorised custodians an obligation to assure the polity that it does not feel itself intimidated by the authority of the day.
Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article first appeared.