These are bizarre times when institutions have developed a propensity to encroach on domains where their intervention is not required. Doing so only creates confusion, which is detrimental to the functioning of a democracy.
On October 4, the Election Commission of India (ECI) issued a letter proposing mandatory disclosure of the “financial implications” of the promises made in manifestos by political parties. The rationale behind the move, as stated in the letter, is to enable healthy debate on the financial implications and fiscal sustainability of promises made by political parties. This, according to the ECI, is necessary for facilitating the conduct of free and fair elections. The letter reveals a sharp contradiction with the ECI’s recent public stance on this issue, besides raising serious questions about the overreach of its power by the Commission.
In April, the ECI told the Supreme Court that it cannot de-register political parties for offering freebies to voters and it is up to the voters to decide whether the distribution of freebies is financially viable or if such policies have an adverse effect on the economic health of the state. However, the agency now wants political parties to elaborate on the rationale for announcing such promises and their financing plan. One wishes that the Commission and other independent bodies showed similar enthusiasm around the issues related to Electoral Bonds.
Two contrasting statements by the ECI in five months raise questions about its independence. Interestingly, the ECI’s letter came after the contentious “revdi culture” remark by the Prime Minister about freebies offered by political parties. Independent watchdog institutions taking cues from the government do not augur well for the health of democracy in the country, especially when such “talking points” demean rights-bearing citizens as passive recipients of dole. The vocabulary used by the government in this context – revdi, saugaat (gift), freebies, muft (free) — smacks of arrogance and betrays a lack of understanding of the country’s socioeconomic realities and the Indian state’s compact with its citizens articulated in the Constitution. Would the ECI take issue with the Constitution and the Directive Principles outlined therein that provide a definite scaffolding for the idea of a welfare state? In the past – as well as in recent times – right-wing and conservative governments in several countries have put the health and well-being of their citizens at severe risk in the name of austerity and fiscal prudence.
Under Article 324 of the Constitution, the Commission’s role and responsibilities are well defined and it has, so far, desisted from intervening in matters other than conducting “free and fair elections”. The agency has a well-earned reputation for conducting free and fair elections, especially in the aftermath of Independence when the country was ravaged by the horrors of the Partition. Several countries, including Nepal and Indonesia, sent their official teams to witness the Indian electoral exercise under the country’s first Election Commissioner Sukumar Sen. Sudan also took guidance for their general elections in 1953. The ECI is mandated to be the guardian of public value and democracy. However, in recent times, some of its positions have raised eyebrows.
It is also pertinent to note that in S. Subramaniam Balaji vs. State of Tamil Nadu (2013) — also cited by the ECI in the Supreme Court — the apex court observed that the provisions of the Representation of the People Act (1951) place no restraint on the power of the political parties to make promises in their election manifesto. The Court added that the manifesto of a political party is a statement of its policy and the question of implementing it arises only if the political party forms a government. The mandatory disclosure of financial ramifications of promises, therefore, creates confusion about the ECI’s powers to undertake such an act.
The executive controls the ECI’s finances and personnel appointments. It has often been seen as appointing pliant election commissioners to limit the agency’s authority internally. In 2017, the declaration of the schedule of the Gujarat elections was delayed. Opposition parties alleged that the ECI’s actions were intended to delay the application of the Model Code of Conduct so that the state’s BJP government could announce fresh initiatives to persuade voters to vote for the party. There have been instances when much before the announcement of election dates, ruling party members have publicly shared dates that tallied exactly with what the ECI announced later. It stretches credulity that there is a hundred per cent similarity in the dates. Even if this is a coincidence, it damages the credibility of the institution that is supposed to ensure a “level playing field” for all parties. The ECI has increased its activities in the run-up to elections. This includes dithering around implementing the Model Code, asking for shorter election campaigns and holding elections over long periods. The agency must maintain credibility in the public eye and the constant change in stance will raise concerns about its impartiality.
The agency must not lose sight of its broader remit to maintain the democratic structure of the Indian political system. It must constantly challenge the Executive’s assertion and reinforce institutional credibility. It should go by the rule book – the Constitution of India. A fine balance between institutions was envisaged by the framers of the Constitution and that should be followed and respected. If institutions start speaking beyond their mandate and start encroaching upon territory which is not theirs, what kind of democracy are we envisaging in the 75th year of India’s Independence?
The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP from the Rashtriya Janta Dal