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Curbs needed on EC's polemics

Almost immediately after the unexpectedly good showing by the BJP in the Assembly Elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh in December 2003, it was evident that the party would pitch for early General Elections, and both the constituents of the ruling alliance and the opposition went into ‘election mode’ and informal ‘campaigning’ commenced. The Election Commission (EC) immediately began making recalcitrant noises, indicating that an election was ‘not possible’ before April 2004. After some dithering on specifics, Parliament was eventually dissolved on January 6, 2004. The Election Commission took another three weeks to announce the dates for a four-phase election that would take all of three weeks to accomplish. With this announcement, the ‘model code of conduct’ comes into operation, and all but the most routine activities of governance are virtually suspended. This election would, moreover, see parties engaged in an (official and unofficial) election campaign for over four months at a cost that is difficult to assess, and through a combination of methods that would, under normal circumstances, fall afoul, if not of the letter, then certainly of the spirit, of the code of conduct.

Indeed, the dispersal of the actual election dates itself – April 20 to May 10, with counting on May 13 – constitutes an implicit problem, giving parties a chance to judge the mood of the voters through exit polls in the earlier phases, and the opportunity to influence voters and coalition strategies in later rounds.

Even before Parliament was dissolved, the EC had voiced reservations regarding the possibility of holding elections before April on the grounds that the revision of electoral rolls was incomplete, and would only be accomplished in March 2004, since these were being updated with effect from January 1, 2004, as the qualifying date. This has become a recurrent plea before almost every recent election and is a complete distortion of the process of revision of electoral rolls. This is not an exercise that is undertaken periodically, like a census operation, but is meant to be continuous. The EC is, in fact, required to be ready to hold elections at all times, and pleas of unpreparedness reflect nothing short of inefficiency and a palpable failure to fulfil Constitutional obligations. Worse, despite all the ‘revisions’, the electoral lists remain, not only incomplete, but grossly inaccurate. Press reports over the past months show, for instance, that many of New Delhi’s constituencies had thousands of cases of bogus voters on the electoral rolls. Persons long dead are regularly found to survive on the lists of voters; a significant number of entirely fictitious individuals also enjoy the right to participate in the nation’s democratic processes. On the other hand, during the last Assembly elections in Gujarat, thousands of voters in Ahmedabad found their names missing from the rolls, and were consequently prevented from casting their votes.

Traditionally, since 1951, the entire election process has taken an average of five to eight weeks. Over time, simultaneous nationwide elections have given way to phased polls, with the interregnum between phases progressively extended. In the meanwhile, successive Chief Election Commissioners have secured star status in the media by making impulsive, ill-considered and entirely unwarranted statements of purely subjective opinions regarding the conduct and character of political parties and leaders, as well as on a range of subjects relating to governance and their personal conceptions of morality. They have also intervened in areas well beyond their Constitutional jurisdiction to impose norms – some of which may well be desirable, though this is not always the case – or air prescriptions that are well beyond the EC’s mandate, and that lie essentially within the sphere of legislation.

What we appear to be witnessing, then, is another case of the rampaging arrogance and declining competence of bureaucrats elevated to Constitutional office. There has been a continuous trend in India as a result of which, once an institution or office is placed under Constitutional protection, its efficiency levels are rapidly eroded, even as its officials display a ‘jurisdiction hunger’ and a desperation for publicity and public adulation – much of which is easily and eagerly provided by contemporary mass media – that goes against the purpose, character and dignity of the offices they hold. It is, of course, common to rail against the corruption of politicians and the bureaucracy in general. But it is useful to note that there are many forms of corruption, and that bribe taking is not its only – or necessarily its most destructive – manifestation. The grandstanding, the gratuitous pontification, the lack of circumspection, the sweeping character assassination of the political and governing classes, the hankering for publicity, that have characterized the pronouncements of several officials in Constitutional positions, including Chief Election Commissioners (CECs), is also a form of moral turpitude that has enormous and detrimental impact on the political life of a nation.

It is useful, within this context, to recall that one CEC saw fit to describe all bureaucrats as "prostitutes" (he did not clarify whether they cease to be prostitutes after elevation to Constitutional office). Another called all politicians "a cancer" for which there was "no cure". The present incumbent has used his position to air opinions that he confesses are "personal" and "not legally binding", but this has not deterred him from expressing these from an official platform. It is evident that these individuals acquire extraordinarily exalted opinions about themselves; regrettably, an ill informed and pliant media has accepted and projected, indeed, magnified their pretensions a thousand-fold, raising mediocre bureaucrats to the level of folk heroes for jobs that are, at best, being poorly done. The impact of television, and the proliferation of TV news channels, has had a particularly unfortunate effect in this context, with few officials displaying the necessary rectitude or strength of character to resist the seduction of a proffered microphone on camera.

The ‘job’ of the EC is, of course, both gigantic and critical to the politics and, indeed, the very survival of Indian democracy. The Indian elections are the largest electoral exercise in the world, and the present election will spread across over 77,000 polling stations, with more than a million electronic voting machines (EVMs) deployed over the length and breadth of the land. The deployment of security forces across this vast and often-troubled canvas creates some of the greatest challenges for those who are strategizing the election process. While the numbers relating to elections and associated problems have risen continuously, it is also the case that better technologies, communications, roads and transport facilities, as well as the new EVMs, have also helped streamline the processes, significantly offsetting many of the adverse factors. Nevertheless, given the magnitude of the challenge, it would be best if the EC focused exclusively on meeting it with the desired levels of efficiency, rather than expending its attention and energies, and those of its senior-most officials, on extraneous issues, on pontificating and grandstanding, and on making a public spectacle of a Constitutional office.

(Published in The Pioneer, March 6, 2004)





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