The ECI Juggernaut

India is finally caught in the election fever waiting to cast votes to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha, one of the most cyclopean phenomena, any democracy in the modern world has ever witnessed. It is this routine followed once in every five years that awakes the country as a whole and the world equally to the vision of geniuses who sketched and scribbled India’s Constitution. The first Election Commissioner in 1950 provided for 176 million eligible citizens largely and mostly unlettered to cast their votes to elect a Government of their choice. Today the electorate is approximately 800 million. It is the Election Commission of India (ECI) which enables India to win the unconceivable and prove the implausible in terms of democratic stability. The elections in 2014 are historic in more than one ways. While the very dominance of the younger voter is visible, the significance of this election in terms of India’s status in the community of nations at the end of five years will largely depend on the type of Government the voters deliver to the nation. The current ECI deserves commendation for highlighting three goals – providing easier access to electors for service delivery, greater transparency and better election management.

Yet again in 2014, the Election Commission has initiated the electoral process to enable the country of approximately a billion people to shape the new Government. The ECI has issued the guidelines on General Election 2014 under article 324 of the Constitution which entrusted the Commission with the power of “superintendence, direction and control”. The present stretch of fluid polity witnessed occasional fissures between the Election Commission and the political parties over the powers and functions of the Commission and the exclusivity of policy matters in the hands of legislators and the Government. The recent judgments by the Hon’ble Supreme Court have attempted to restore the status of the Commission and attempts to deride the basic structure of the Constitution. The Governments present and past have been reluctant to initiate electoral reforms by enacting laws to boost the dignity and transparency of electoral process in India. The enactment to disqualify candidates charged with heinous offences is nowhere on the horizon. The various initiatives of the Election Commission for the want of legal prowess to curb effectively the electoral offences has mostly depended on the judicial determination for validation.

It is important to recount the new measures announced by the CEC which perhaps have gone unnoticed. In the age of information technology the ECI assents to increase transparency by uploading the affidavits of candidates on web portals, electoral roles in PDF form, use of webcasting at polling stations, EVM tracking and effective management of elections from SMS based poll monitoring. The two momentous judgments of the Supreme Court, first the verdict of July 5, 2013 directing the Election Commission of India to frame guidelines for regulating the contents of election manifesto particularly freebies and second the verdict of 13 September 2013 which upheld that if a candidate fails to fill the blanks in the affidavit towards furnishing required information alongwith the nomination paper even after the reminder by the Returning Officer, such a nomination paper is fit to be rejected. Accordingly, the Election Commission has issued guidelines to the Returning Officer for strict compliance regarding the filing of affidavit complete in all respects at the time of scrutiny. The affidavits are to be displayed on notice boards and make them freely available on demand to the general public. While the filing of the affidavit is mandatory, the Commission is also facilitating for optional e-filing of the affidavits by the candidates. The e-filing will help candidates in providing information without any omission.

Nevertheless, the most significant sights of prudence of the Election Commission are exhibited in its clarification on affidavits of candidates and accounts of political parties. The Election Commission of India on 22 February 2014 intimated to all the recognized national and state political parties that the “details of Bank accounts, assets and liabilities furnished in the affidavit should invariably include the details of all deposits/investments in foreign banks and any other body/institution abroad, and details of all, assets and liabilities in foreign countries. This clarification comes as an upshot of the Commission’s consideration of the proposal by Public Interest Foundation, an NGO, along with other civil society organizations emphasizing on the need to ensure that the candidates are required to provide details of any possessions or investments abroad as it did not explicitly provide in the revised Form 26 for the purpose.

While the candidates contesting elections are required to maintain and furnish separate account of his/her election expenditure in accordance with Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, the Election Commission in the spirit to ensure free and fair elections has required all political parties sponsoring candidates during elections “to maintain day to day account for all election campaign expenses and submit the accounts to the Commission within 90 days of Lok Sabha elections and 75 days of Assembly elections”. This exceptionally thoughtful requirement is indubitably reflective of the recent actions of political parties displaying a frightening reach of impudence and arrogance inviting public indignation.

To ensure smooth conduct of elections, the Commission has provided for general observers, expenditure observers, polls observers, awareness observers and micro observers charged with specific responsibilities. A separate election expenditure monitoring division has been set up in the Commission to deal with information on poll expenses of the candidates and political parties.

Once again, the Election Commission has addressed the copious task of creating political awareness, educating the citizenry of their rights, minimizing the negatives of social cleavage thus establishing the ultimate sovereignty where it rightly belongs.

By (N. Misra is ex-Chairman, TRAI and Director, Public Interest Foundation & Karthika is Research Associate;

(This article was published in The Pioneer on 08 April 2014 and Mail Online India on 1 April 2014 )