Independence of ECI is crucial

If the sustenance of India’s electoral democracy is considered a miracle, then Election Commission of India (ECI) must be seen as its principal architect. The poll watchdog not only oversees the largest electoral process in the world but also formulates and implements rules to ensure that the poll field remains level. The custodians of this solemn responsibility are election commissioners and the chief election commissioner. However, despite ECI being a constitutional body, the process of appointing election commissioners remains unclear. In the seven decades after Independence, Parliament has not formulated a law on this subject and successive governments have arrogated this power. It is precisely this process that is now under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.

In hearings, the Constitution Bench lamented that successive governments destroyed the independence of the body and political parties exploited the silence of the Constitution and picked people with truncated tenures to hold influence over them. The court’s direction of questioning is pointed but fair: Can a person picked by the executive branch be reasonably expected to stand up to it? In response, the government has argued that the Constitution did not cast an indispensable mandate on Parliament to frame a law, and raised important issues of separation of powers and the domain of the executive. These merit deliberation. But it is also important to remember that several important pieces of electoral reform were sparked by judicial intervention, be it the introduction of “none of the above” option to voters, the decree that candidates have to make public their criminal records, details of financial assets and educational qualifications, or the law to disqualify convicted lawmakers. These interventions brought much-needed sunlight into the electoral process, and helped boost the public’s trust in the poll system.

Since it was set up in 1950, ECI has gained a reputation for honesty and excellence around the world. But at certain points in its history, it has also garnered criticism for moving slowly on sensitive matters and being too pliant – especially in the years preceding the appointment of TN Seshan in 1990. At a time when fair elections are facing challenges of misinformation, hate speech, and money and muscle power, greater transparency in the appointment of election commissioners can only add to the reputation of integrity of the body. Political actors and the executive, legislative and judicial branches should consider coming together to draft a framework for ECI that is not only transparent but also seen as being above any influence. This will help democracy.

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