A Long Look at One of the Most Important Institutions of the Indian Democracy

Ujjwal Kumar Singh and Anupama Roy have written the first academic monograph on the Election Commission, seven decades after it was first established. 

Both theorists as well as political practitioners have certified the Indian democracy as being a success.

This perceived success, however, has been essentially in electoral terms. With a huge number of parties in contention against each other in reasonably ‘free and fair’ elections, with massive people’s participation (amounting to one sixth of the world electorate), spread across a vast and widely varying terrain, India cannot but fail to impress. 

Elections are vital for the well-being of India’s democracy, especially given the relative weakness of what are meant to be ‘non-electoral’ checks and democratic forums. An incremental rise in the level of electoral participation and contestation has helped Indian democracy become far more representative.

As Sunil Khilnani has argued, elections in India carry ‘the entire society’s aspirations’ to the extent that as the ‘sole bridge between state and society’ they have come to ‘stand for democracy itself.’  

Not surprisingly, then, the study of elections, the party system and electoral politics has assumed great significance in recent academic writings about India’s democracy. However, other than a few articles, the study of the institutional-legal components of electoral democracy like the role of electoral laws, practice and procedures, electoral finance, electoral reforms and judicial discourse around elections has received scant academic attention. This is what makes Singh and Roy’s book on the Election Commission of India (ECI) so important.

‘Election Commission of India: Institutionalising Democratic Uncertainties’, Ujjwal Kumar Singh and Anupama Roy, Oxford

It is the first full-length book on the ECI that has come out seven decades after it was first established on January 25, 1950. The day is now celebrated as National Voters’ Day. 

The ECI is a highly trusted institution entrusted with the task of ‘superintendence, direction and control of elections’ under Article 324 of the Indian constitution.

Significantly, as the authors point out, while the makers of the Indian Constitution drew from both colonial laws and other Constitutions while setting up other statutory or constitutional bodies and offices, ‘there was no existing precedent for an election commission of the kind envisaged’ by them. 

The academic neglect is surprising given the vital role the institution has played over the decades in conducting and regulating elections at federal and state levels.

Describing the ‘magnitude of the elections’ and the ‘changes in the political field and innovations in electoral strategies and campaigns of political parties’ the book makes one aware of the mammoth task the ECI has performed so far.

The last three decades, in particular, have posed new challenges with the massification of electoral democracy. Significantly, this period also witnessed the ECI in ‘an activist’ phase as Indian politics underwent a process of transition and uncertainty.

Short-lived coalition governments tumbled one after another, anti-incumbency became the buzzword in election studies and new claimants to political power violated established democratic norms of electoral conduct with impunity. The reckless use of empty populism, sectarian or divisive ethnic politics, political violence and money power posed a great threat to the well-being of democracy even as it ‘widened and deepened’ with the surge in participation of the socially and economically marginal, including women and minorities.

It was during this period, referred to by Yogendra Yadav as the ‘Third Electoral System’, when ‘unbridled mobilisation’ unleashed by mass politics seemed to ‘exceed institutionalisation’, that the ECI under the watch of Commissioners like T.N. Seshan, M.S. Gill and James M. Lyngdoh showed great authority and tenacity in restoring the democratic balance. All these three former civil servants, as well as some of their predecessors and successors, presided over the transition of the ECI from merely being an election-conducting institution to a ‘referee/regulatory institution’.

The ECI’s regulatory tasks have involved not only determining the electoral rules but also periodically ‘innovating, strengthening and reinforcing them.’

With the help of ‘authoritative judicial interpretations’ (as in PUCL & Anr. vs Union of India and Anr. 2003) of Article 324, the only article that refers directly to the institution, the ECI sought to empower itself by becoming an autonomous and visible body.

The ECI has not only been instrumental in institutionalising a Model Code of Conduct which political parties have agreed to but also exercising extraordinary powers regarding the posting and deployment of the bureaucracy during ‘election time.’ 

By ‘dipping into the reservoir of powers’ that emanate from Article 324 and appropriating ‘residuary powers’ where the ‘law was silent’, the ECI, say Singh and Roy, has succeeded in providing a ‘procedural certainty to ensure the democratic uncertainty of electoral outcomes, and electoral integrity to assure the deliberative content of election.’

However, as has happened to many other constitutional/statutory bodies in recent times including the Supreme Court (SC) of India and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), the neutrality of the ECI has come under a scanner. 

In the ‘post-Congress polity’, controversies have started plaguing the institution. If the petition of then Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Seshan to the SC challenging the appointment and powers of two additional election commissioners (EC) was helpful in laying down the composition and collective functioning of the ECI, the move by CEC Gopalaswami to remove then EC Navin Chawla and more recently, the refusal to note minority decisions by EC Ashok Lavasa leading to his recusal are two incidents  that illustrate the internal bickering within the institution and the proclivity of the party in power to take advantage of it.

Also read: The Reputation of the Election Commission Has Been Severely Tarnished

The last few years, in particular, have seen a further subversion of the autonomy and integrity of the ECI, leading to several questions about its neutrality. The opposition has raised concerns about ECI decisions regarding the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and not allowing a Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machine in all polling booths.

The role of the ECI has also come under scrutiny in conflict areas like Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states. The continued influence of money power and hate speeches by politicians are areas where the ECI has been seen as helpless, unable to take tough action.

There have been several committees like the Goswami Committee which have suggested reforms to weed out criminals, moneybags and hate-mongers from the electoral process. However, it may be slightly unfair to criticise the ECI alone for its inability to effect these reforms as political parties have not cooperated. 

This book is worth reading not only to make acquaintance with the life and times of the ECI but also to learn the fascinating story of the first general election in a newly independent India as told by the ECI itself (chapter 1).

There is also a focus on the 2014 Lok Sabha election as a test case for what has gone right and wrong with electoral democracy. The book also raises important questions about the preparation of the electoral roll, which is intimately connected to the citizenship issue especially in the North-east (chapter 2). 

Also read: The Legacy of a Different CEC: When J.M. Lyngdoh Stood up to Modi

One wishes, however, that other general elections had also got detailed treatment. Were not they equally important?

Take for instance, the fourth ‘general elections’ in 1967, which saw the beginning of Congress losing its socially broad-based support. We also need to know more about the proceedings of the constituent assembly while contemplating an ECI.

In such a voluminous constitution, why was only one article considered sufficient to establish such an important institution? The authors rightly take up the issue of political funding and the inability of the ECI to do much about it but leave out almost completely the way criminals and anti-social elements have infested the electoral process and the complicity of political parties in thwarting any further reform.

While the authors refer to a few CECs (mentioned above) it would have been a good idea to have a comparative study of active and not-so-active CECs, especially the ones who had a longer tenure or under whose watch Lok Sabha elections were held. As is evident, the ECI has been greatly impacted by the kind of leadership it has got over the decades. 

India’s formal institutions, so important for the well-being of its democracy, are still more procedural than substantive in essence. This scintillating full-fledged study is the first of its kind examining the working of a trusted constitutional body over seventy years as electoral  democracy in India has undergone a process of significant transformation. 

Ashutosh Kumar is professor, Department of Political Science at Panjab University, Chandigarh.