Updated: December 18, 2021 9:38:25 am
A constitutional democracy is held up as much by its individual and separate institutions as by the terms of their relationship with each other. The respect and dignity they give to, and demand from one another, may sometimes be intangible, but is nevertheless crucial. In India, the Election Commission discharges its constitutional mandate of conducting free and fair elections but it does more than just that. It also forms the core of a sprawling electoral system in which, except the odd aberration, even those who lose an election by a hair’s breadth seldom question the results, or the credibility of the poll monitor. The EC’s reputation for independence and fairness is not just its individual attribute, but also forms an inalienable part of the system’s legitimacy, the people’s trust in supervisory institutions, as winners and losers come and go. The EC, therefore, must especially be accorded its due dignity and respect — much depends on it. That is why there is reason to pause on the wording of a letter from an official of the law ministry to the poll panel last month. As this newspaper has revealed, it effectively summoned the CEC to a meeting chaired by an official in the PMO. There is reason, also, to ask why, after the CEC had made known his “displeasure” at the tone of the letter, and stayed away from the meeting, all three election commissioners bent immediately thereafter, joining an “informal interaction” with the PMO official. Questions must be asked — of the PMO, law ministry and the EC — not because any meeting between them is controversial, but because the lack of form and propriety in the entire exchange matters. It speaks of larger and disquieting things.
The strength of institutions, or the balance between them, is a changeable thing, varying and wavering over time. The EC was not always the formidable body that it is today. Much of the ground for its current standing was laid by the leadership of TN Seshan, whose tenure in the 1990s was widely seen to rouse a sleepy institution. CEC Seshan gave new force to the EC’s role of upholding the rules of the game, including the Model Code of Conduct. Similarly, the equilibrium between institutions has not remained the same. In fact, ever since a single party won a majority at the Centre after over two decades in 2014, there has been mounting pressure on unelected institutions to bend and bow to the elected and their “mandate”. The EC has not always stepped up to the watchdog’s rising challenge. Several decisions, from the delay in announcing the election schedule in Gujarat, 2017, to the prevarication in banning campaign activity amid the second Covid surge in West Bengal this year, were seen to favour the Centre’s ruling establishment.
The EC must urgently dispel the impression of not being able to keep an aggressive Executive at arm’s length, of any weakness in the knees. At the very least, the CEC should ask the Law Ministry to regret on record and withdraw the note in question. The government must also recognise that undermining the EC ends up weakening the very system it draws its strength from. In the run-up to the coming round of assembly polls, the red lines will need to be redrawn, with a renewed firmness. The EC will be closely watched.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 18, 2021 under the title ‘Buckling’.
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