Current issues related to the Election Commission of India
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This article has been written by Sukeerti KG and this article has been edited by Khushi Sharma (Trainee Associate, Blog iPleaders).

Introduction

India is the world’s largest democratic country. In a democracy, the election represents, in certain cases, apotheosis of politics. For embodying a fair election process, an independent autonomous body called the Election Commission was created under the authority of Article 324 of the Indian Constitution. In 2019, the Election Commission had to oversee the largest election in the world which consisted of 90 Crore eligible voters. Dr.Ambedkar rightly remarked, ‘that in the interests of purity and freedom of elections to the legislative bodies, it was of the utmost importance that they should be free from any kind of interference from the executive of the day. Though the words of Ambedkar are much valuable, the actual independence of the Election Commission from politics is a conundrum. 

    Initially, even after the constitution of the Election Commission (hereinafter referred as EC), there was no ‘Code of Conduct’ which needed to be observed by the parties and representatives during the electoral campaign. In 1960, a model code of conduct was issued in the Kerala Elections which was more of a guideline rather than a requirement. A former CEC asserted that ‘the EC during the 1970s and 1980s was seen as a sidekick of the government…. You could find the CEC waiting outside the office of the Law Minister…. The ECI is [now] an independent and autonomous body. It does not have political masters’. Subsequently, after a lot of trial and error, the EC slowly developed the Code of Conduct which needed to be observed during the election and long after, in the 1990’s it became authoritative. The persons who violate the code of conduct had no impact and governmental influence over the election process was expected. Corruption cases, electoral frauds, undue influence by the political parties upon the voters were common.

    Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, aka, T.N. Seshan, who was the Chief Electoral Commissioner, could be said as the first person who gave a face to the EC and transformed everyday politics. High-end politicians were afraid of the EC, as they were not able to go on their usual business, with the EC watching over them. Still, the model code of conduct did not have any penalties nor were they authoritative. It was the CEC, who had to use the powers of the EC in a different way so as to enable a minimum requirement of the model code to be followed. He certainly shaped and moved a step forward towards the free and fair election.

About T.N. Seshan – A brief Introduction

T.N.Seshan was born on 15th December 1932 in Madras. He holds a B.Sc degree in Physics and later cleared the UPSC exam and served as an IAS trainee. He served as a Collector in Madurai and later went to Harvard University to study Public Administration. He was appointed as secretary to the Atomic Energy Commission and served as a Joint Secretary for the Department of Space. He was also secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forest, Ministry of Defence and as a member of the planning commission. It is fair to say that he had been deeply involved in governmental actions, understood the need for development and the needs of people. 

Seshan as the Chief Electoral Commissioner

He was appointed in 1991 and served till 1996. During his period he had implemented several standards and it was under his rule that the uniform Voter ID was issued to all the eligible voters. Some of his main codes of conduct were:

  • Curbing bribes;
  • No distribution of liquor;
  • No use of loudspeakers without permission;
  • No booth capturing;
  • Not intimidating or coercing or influencing the voters;
  • Not damaging public walls with posters and paints;
  • Not using official machinery to conduct electoral work;
  • No use of religious places;
  • Not appealing to voters ‘ caste or communist feelings; 
  • Submitting poll expenses and monitoring by EC; and
  • Not making fake promises in the election manifesto. 

Reforms brought in by T. N. Seshan during his tenure 

    The tenure served by Seshan could be viewed as a season for changes and bold reforms. His opinionated reforms made him to be remarked as ‘legend’ and ‘source as inspiration’. He categorised nearly 150 electoral malpractices as a part of electoral reform. Some of the key reforms are explained below.

Support of opposite parties and small parties

    The EC began to strictly enforce the model code of conduct, which was favourable to the opposing parties, as they could win in a fair election which is not influenced by the party which forms the government. The opposite party were ready to support the EC and the code of conduct, as it enabled them a chance to win by not allowing the ruling party to lure voters by attractive government policies at the end of tenure which would mostly not be implemented once the party comes into tenure. Smaller parties supported ECI efforts to clean up electoral rolls, as inflated rolls allowed major parties to fraudulently exaggerate vote share.

Prohibiting liquor distribution:

Seshan prohibited the use and distribution of liquor during election, and more importantly for 3 to 2 days before the date of election. Sobriety of voters during voting is important and alcohol addicts were easily influenced by parties by supplying then with intoxicants. It is said that Goa, where liquor is easily available, went up dry before election when T.N.Seshan was the CEC. 

Misuse of government machinery

Sheshan prohibited the use of Governmental Cars and people who work for the government, etc should not be used by the ruling party to conduct political campaigns. Initially, for security reasons, the Prime Minister can use the Security and vehicles for his safety which was later extended to Chief Ministers and other ministers as they were at risk of being hurt and thus their safety is of utmost importance. Even though they are allowed to use government machinery, they are not supposed to use it for purely political campaigns and the two are essentially distinct. 

Model code of conduct – effective period

To curb electoral fraud and voter influence, the EC recommended that the code would come into force immediately after the official announcement of the date of the election. It was strongly opposed by the political parties, which led to the filing of a case in which the EC agreed that it would normally be more than 3 weeks prior to official notification of the elections, but the EC otherwise got what it was wanted. 

Using electoral powers to punish violations in code of conduct

The EC in order to enforce the Code of Conduct threatened to postpone or cancel the elections in case of violations. This was unprecedented but Seshan used his activist ways to bring about changes. He also stopped several election campaigns in midstream to prove that he wouldn’t hesitate to cancel or postpone elections in case of violation of the code of conduct.  He once stopped a by-election in Ajnala, Punjab when the government included promises to include Dalit – Christians on as a Scheduled Caste.  

Keeping the walls free from political thoughts

The public walls would be full of epic murals and posters during the election. But the ECE in 1994, ordered the State Government to take action against political parties who defaced the walls of buildings during the election and also to remove the posters and whitewash the walls after the elections. This was highly inconvenient to the political party who were used to branding their symbols in walls and thus criticised him as being an extended Environment Minister (as a jab to him working as a Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forests).

Restriction of use of speakers and timings for public meetings

He also prohibited the use of loudspeakers without previous authorisation and limited their timings from 8 am to 7 pm for moving vehicles. Meetings must be scheduled before 11 pm in rural areas and 10 pm in urban areas. 

Booth capturing

Under his strict watch, in the 1993 elections, in Uttar Pradesh, the booth capturing count fell to 255 – from 873 in 1991. The number of polling day killings also fell from 36 to three. The number of constituencies in which polling had to be suspended or deferred, also dipped to three compared to the previous 17.

Money and muscle power were not the only things that Seshan tried to curtail. In all states, dry days were declared six days before polling.

In the 1996 general elections, the Election Commission deployed 1,500 observers – of three per constituency – for monitoring the elections. Polling stations were run by around 1.5 million state employees, while over 600,000 security personnel were deployed. Some 300,000 people were placed in preventive detention, including 125,000 in Uttar Pradesh, and 59,000 in Madhya Pradesh, where 87,000 firearms were also seized, according to reports

Election manifesto:

The ECE issued an Ordinance that empowered the EC to derecognise a political party if they blatantly violate the Model Code under the Election Symbol Ordinance Act. The EC issued a notice to all political parties to submit their Election Manifesto for review. This outraged the Political Parties and all faced increasing scrutiny by EC and videographers were sent to the Electoral Events and the tape was brought back to the EC to be reviewed at a Control Room. 

Publicity for educating the voters on a moral code of conduct

Seshan was usually in the spotlight and used the print media to educate the young middle-income voters who formed the majority of the population. They were greatly inspired by how the EC worked with ECE directions. He continuously made press releases and toured the country excessively to keep politicians in line. A Columnist noted that he was at least in the headlines 3 times a week. It made the public more conscious about the electoral practices and the underlying principles of free and fair election to ensure Democracy. 

Criticism about T.N. Seshan

Seshan was highly criticised for misusing the power as an Election Commissioner. In order to curb his powers, the Legislature amended the Laws which enabled them to appoint Joint Election Commissioners and Appointed M.S. Gill and G V G Krishnamoorthy. TN Seshan filed a case in the Supreme Court challenging the authority of the Legislature which was termed by the Supreme Court as ‘airing’ dirty laundry in public. The appointment was held to be valid and within the purview of the Legislature. But this in no way curtailed the power of the Election Commissioner as the Supreme Court ruled that the Joint EC’s cannot by voting overrule the decisions of the EC. 

He was referred to as an al-seshan dog by a former member of the Cabinet. There were some comments made by a Columnist, ’We the voters are not nursery children, who require to be led by EC’s grandfatherly role’. 

Overlap of regular governmental policies along with campaign manifesto. Any policy which is introduced was considered to be influencing the public on false pretences. The Hindu remarked that the Code of Conduct is not a license to freeze normal governance.

T.N. Seshan Statements:

  • Show me one instance where I have done anything that is not stated in the Constitution about the powers of the Election Commission, and I will quit.
  •  Do you think I should allow politicians to commit dacoity on democracy?
  •  [To P.V. Narasimha Rao] Mr Prime Minister, the only offices I aspire to now are those of the president and prime minister of India and, to my advantage, both are occupied.
  •  Give me ten years and I can make Mera Bharat [my India] mahaan [great] again. It will take me ten years, no more, but do you have the courage for it

Conclusion

T.N. Seshan is undoubtedly a fearless man who gained a lot of political enemies during his tenure. He contested in the 1997 election for President and lost it. He led a quiet life in Chennai with his wife. The acts during his tenure as Chief Election Commissioner will always adorn the post of the CEC.   He received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service in 1996. He passed away on 10th November 2019.  Undoubtedly, he has contributed a great deal in shaping modern Electioneering.


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