For long, the holding of elections in India was a somewhat neglected topic — until TN Seshan happened. Since his advent, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has remained in the limelight. From TN Seshan onwards, election commissioners have often felt that their experience in office has been eventful enough to justify a memoir. This has enticed office-bearers into writing about the conduct of elections, the issue of electoral reform, the functioning of the ECI — often laced with personal reminiscences. Navin Chawla, India’s chief election commissioner (CEC) in 2009 and 2010 has, similarly, written “on the story of India’s elections”.
Chawla’s book combines four things. He traces the overall historical trends that have marked the conduct of India’s elections. While this is indeed a fascinating story, he does not necessarily deal with it in a scholastic or historical manner. In any case, with Ornit Shani’s work, a major gap in India’s electoral history is now partially filled and Chawla himself also makes liberal use of her work to buttress the point about the extraordinary devotion and competence of the early electoral administrators, especially the first CEC, Sukumar Sen. Chawla primarily focuses on that history to bring home the foundational task the CEC then undertook.
The book then jumps beyond 2010 — the time when Chawla demitted office — and relates the larger issues he is discussing to developments in the decade since he left the ECI. This has a handicap. Not being personally involved in either decision-making or implementation, Chawla’s discussion of post-2010 developments remains mainly second-hand, relying on information already available in the public domain. However, the advantage of this strategy is that the themes that he is discussing do not remain trapped in the period he was with the ECI; instead, he is able to point out the continuing relevance of a number of issues — be it the relationship between the CEC and other commissioners, the question of electoral rolls, the issue of the model code of conduct or even the issue currently being debated both inside and outside of courts — electronic voting machines (EVMs).
The third thing, as one can only expect from such a work, is a personal touch — the book is not exactly a memoir but as Chawla clearly states, he does use his notes (made while in office) and attempts to bring to the reader some glimpses of an insider view of the complex and politically sensitive task of conducting elections in India. A reader looking for the personal touch, however, may be disappointed because being a lifelong bureaucrat, Chawla is far too cautious to name names, blame people or go into controversial details. Even the discussion of his personal spat with his predecessor in office, N Gopalaswami, is far too tame and lacking in sting as well as actual details.
But above all, Chawla probably wants to emphasise some long-term issues that currently plague the electoral process — paid news, social media, the legitimacy of EVMs, difficulty of conducting elections in conflict zones and the perennial issue of electoral reforms. It is here that the author is much more engaged than in the somewhat staid presentation of his “memoirs”. Being too reticent to claim credit and at the same time being unable to resist the temptation of situating himself in the history of conducting elections, his discussion of the 2009 general elections or even the “historic election” in Jammu and Kashmir in 2008 fails to engage the reader. But Chawla’s treatment of critical issues listed above may have the potential to generate more informed debate about the ‘democratic’ dimension of elections in India.
And yet, it is precisely in this area that the book leaves the reader somewhat dissatisfied. The author comes close to touching upon many sensitive issues that need upfront public debate but then shies away from taking them further. One such issue is directly related to his personal tiff with Gopalaswami. While Chawla may have his own defence in the matter, and while it is gracious of him not to bore the reader with personal differences, the author also stops short of a more fundamental approach to the issue. It is not only about how constitutional functionaries should conduct themselves; it is also not only, as Chawla discusses in chapter 12, the issue about the role of election commissioners; the issue also pertains to charges of possible political biases, and, therefore, the mechanism of appointment. India’s institutional experience so far shows that the sagacity of the non-partisan approach to crucial appointments is not exactly a virtue our political class is bestowed with. As such, appointments to such high offices as the Election Commission etc. have to be made through a more robust process involving the main opposition in Parliament. It would be great if former CECs hammered this point to ensure greater legitimacy and autonomy for the ECI.
Similarly, there are hints in the book about difficulties faced in dealing with the Home Ministry, but there is not much discussion about the possible ways in which the political executive may be using this shield to coax the ECI into having a certain schedule for polling. Reading Chawla’s book, one gets the impression that political masters in our country are made up entirely of democratic gentlemen and ladies and that there is not even an iota of political intervention. Or take the case of the model code of conduct. Does this really ensure free and fair elections or only allow local bureaucratic authoritarianisms that hurt only small fry? Chawla may have an answer, but the book does not. And unless answers to such nagging matters are searched for, we are left with only pious hope. Reading Chawla’s book in the week in which the prime minister himself made a mockery of the code of conduct and the ECI meekly accepted the trickery, makes one wonder whether the ECI is really the giant that Seshan made it out to be or whether the teeth of that giant are only for the sundry and not for the really powerful.
The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, and is chief editor, Studies in Indian Politics