A war of words has broken out between West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Election Commission, with Mamata questioning the latter’s decision to transfer four senior police officers in her state, and the EC responding that it is within its rights to act against police officers on poll duty. It brings into focus the Commission’s remit when it comes to exercising disciplinary control over the election machinery:
Does the EC have its own team for conducting an election?
The EC has a separate secretariat headquartered in Delhi, but this set-up is not enough to conduct elections, especially on the scale of the Lok Sabha polls. The EC secretariat has roughly 400 officers at the level of deputy election commissioners, director general, director, senior principal secretary, principal secretary, under secretary and section officers, among others. While officers at the level of deputy election commissioner, director general and director are normally appointed on deputation from civil services, other positions are occupied by the permanent staff of the Commission.
So, how does the Commission get the manpower to conduct elections?
The EC headquarters in Delhi essentially monitors the conduct of elections. The bulk of the work, such as preparation and revision of the voters’ list and the actual conduct of polls, is executed on the ground and for that the Commission needs the help of the state machinery. Article 324 of the Constitution provides that the President or the Governor of a state is obliged to provide all “such staff as may be necessary” for the EC to conduct elections, not just in the state concerned, but outside as well. The electoral machinery in the field is headed by the Chief Electoral Officer (a senior government official) and consists mainly of district election officers (usually a district magistrate), electoral registration officers (sub-divisional magistrate), assistant electoral registration officers (tehsildar), returning officers (district magistrate), assistant returning officers (additional magistrate) and booth-level officers (government schoolteachers, anganwadi workers. postmen etc). Closer to an election, when the electoral roll is prepared, hundreds of thousands of government workers are drafted in to perform duties as enumerators, presiding officers, polling officers and counting assistants, and others. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, nearly one crore people, including local police and central paramilitary forces, helped in the conduct of elections.
The expression “such staff as may be necessary” under Article 324 was at the centre of a controversy in 1993 when the EC sought a certain number of senior officers from the Union government to be deployed as observers for some Assembly elections. While the Commission maintained it has the prerogative to determine the number of staff required to conduct free and fair elections, the Centre felt it was for the government to decide how much staff it could spare. The Commission petitioned the Supreme Court, which decided that the EC and the government should jointly decide the staff and paramilitary forces required for conduct of elections. Since then, it has always been done through mutual consultation.
Are there exceptions to who can be drafted for making poll arrangements?
There are 10 categories of government officers and employees that are exempted from election duty. These are senior officers of the Indian Forest Service; doctors and compounders working in veterinary hospitals; Grade B officers of veterinary hospitals; medical staff including doctors and nurses; territorial staff of the forest departments; All India Radio employees; Doordarshan employees, operational/technical staff of UPSC, BSNL and educational institutions; officers/staff of commercial banks located in rural areas which happen to be a single-officer branch; and a person retiring in six months.
What is the EC’s disciplinary control over the electoral machinery?
Under the Representation of the People Act, all staff roped in for making election arrangements in their respective states and outside are deemed to be on deputation to the EC and are subject to its control and discipline. For instance, a state police officer drafted for poll duty will be under the EC’s control from the date elections are notified till the results are announced. State Chief Secretaries, Home Secretaries and Directors-General of Police are also understood be under the Commission’s disciplinary control during poll season.
In 2000, at the Supreme Court’s behest, the EC and the Centre mutually agreed on the former’s disciplinary control over the election machinery. The agreed terms are: “The disciplinary functions of the Election Commission of India over officers, staff and police deputed to perform election duty during election period shall extend to: (a) suspending any officer/police personnel for insubordination of dereliction of duty; (b) substituting any officer / official / police personnel by another such person, and returning the substituted individual to the cadre to which he belongs, with appropriate report on his conduct; (c) making recommendation to the competent authority for taking disciplinary action for any act of insubordination or dereliction of duty while on election duty, with such recommendation being promptly acted upon by the disciplinary authority. Such action taken will be communicated to the Election Commission within six months from the date of the EC’s recommendations; (d) the Government of India will advise the State governments that they too should follow the above principles and decisions, since a large number of election officials are under their administrative control.”
How many times has the EC initiated disciplinary action during the current Lok Sabha elections?
Since March 10, apart from the transfer of the four police officers in West Bengal, high-profile cases include the EC’s removal of Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary Anil Chandra Punetha for defying its orders on the transfer of Director-General of Intelligence A B Venkateswara Rao, Kadapa SP Rahul Dev Sharma, and Srikakulam SP V Ratnam. The three officers were transferred on a complaint by the YSR Congress Party, which had accused them of helping the ruling TDP. Also, the Additional Director General of Police, Special Branch, in Jharkhand was moved to the state Resident Commissioner’s office in New Delhi on the direction of the EC after it had received complaints alleging bias on the officer’s part.