Omission, Commission & All That Election Jazz

Strange are the ways of events which unravel with close proximity to each other, as if part of a greater design that is unfurled slow-mo, screen-by-screen, denying us an opportunity to determine whether a bigger picture exists behind the sequencing of the frames or actions. Just when the public has started feeling nauseatingly overfed on stories of Ramalinga Raju’s fraudulent practices, and was eagerly looking forward to some sort of retribution, comes an unguided missile from the Election Commission of India.
Or is it a guided one, of the political-heatseeking variety? That will be tantalisingly revealed as the slides change on the projection screen, but it is definitely a peculiar coincidence that around the same time that the Satyam incidence has turbo-charged all corporate governance discussions, questions are also being raised about “governance” at a more general level, in one of the unimpeachable institutions of the country. The Chief Election Commissioner, a constitutional authority, has written to the President suggesting that one of his Election Commissioners should be retired before the next general elections to be held in April. The grounds: the CEC suspects the man to be close to the ruling party and is, therefore, concerned about the Election Commission’s ability to discharge its duties without prejudice or bias during the coming elections.
This column will — rather sanctimoniously, one must add — refrain from taking any sides in this debate or sitting on judgement on any of the parties concerned. But, it will certainly point out to some existing facts — which seem like a strange quirk of fate (or, call it an odd twist to events) — and let readers reach their own conclusions. Case in point is a document that was prepared by the commission in 2004, which outlines all kinds of electoral reforms required in the country. In one part of the report, there is a section titled “Composition of Election Commission and Constitutional Protection of All Members of The Commission and Independent Secretariat for the Commission.” Rather mouthful, what?
But it contains one precious gem. This section outlines how the CEC can be removed only on certain grounds and only through a certain process, as laid down under clause (5) of Article 324 of the Constitution. It is similar to the grounds and processes applicable to judges of the Supreme Court.
Here’s the clincher: the Election Commission had suggested in 2004 that the two Election Commissioners too be granted the same immunity available to the CEC. The report on electoral reforms reads: “However, that Clause (5) of Article 324 does not provide similar protection to the Election Commissioners and it merely says that they cannot be removed from office except on the recommendation of the Chief Election Commissioner. The provision, in the opinion of the Election Commission, is inadequate and requires an amendment to provide the very same protection and safeguard in the matter of removability of Election Commissioners from office as is available to the Chief Election Commissioner.”
The President, in 2003, fixed the number of election commissioners, under the CEC, at two — one of whom is under the spotlights now. Under the existing rules, they cannot be removed unless suggested by the CEC in writing. Had the proposed changes been carried out by the current parliament, the process for expelling the two election commissioners would have become long-drawn and cumbersome. In which case, then the current CEC might not have been able to write such a letter and trigger off such a public outcry on both sides of the aisle. The important issue is what happens after the CEC writes the letter: does it become binding on the president or the government?
The other important point is: who won? Nobody’s sure, because the election commissioner in question does not seem to be anywhere near the exit points. Even the CEC, who retires before the next round of elections commence, might not have hoped for much through his letter. But, he surely has stirred up a hornet’s nest and ensured that his letter—and the paper on proposed electoral reforms—gets some more attention.
So, let’s turn our attention to some other important recommendations, which too have rather far-reaching implications. There is one which forms the cornerstone of all electoral reforms, and should be the starting point for all reforms process. The section is titled “Compulsory Maintenance of Accounts by Political Parties and Audit Thereof by Agencies Specified by the Election Commission.” This is something that has been considered to be the root cause of all corruption in the country and changes have been demanded time and again by all members of civil society. The suggestion is simple. It demands that all political parties, first, keep proper accounts of monies received and spent and get them audited, and second, make them available to the public. These accounts could be audited by any agency approved by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Unfortunately, not only have the political parties stubbornly refused to implement this significant piece of reforms, they have also been reluctant to engage in an open debate about it.
(Courtesy: The Economic Times)

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