A presidential intervention becalms the atmosphere in the Election Commission as it prepares to supervise the world's biggest democratic exercise.
ALLEGATIONS of bias are perhaps the last thing the Election Commission of India (ECI) would seem to need at this juncture as it sets under way the preliminary arrangements for the twelfth general elections, expected with good reason to be the most contentious ever. Still less desirable perhaps would be mutual acrimony between constitutional functionaries who are supposed to operate in tandem to ensure fair and free polls.
In the course of a discussion with the press on December 12, Election Commissioner G.V.G. Krishnamurthy covered a range of issues. For obvious reasons, his references to the Shiv Sena, which had chosen persistently to default on the ECI's directive to hold internal party elections, earned the greatest attention.
T.N. Seshan had during his colourful, controversial and abrasive tenure as Chief Election Commissioner, created an opportunity for himself to venture into the internal matters of political parties. The fault in that instance lay with a particular party with a pronounced tendency towards fission, which had persistently to call in the adjudicatory function of the ECI to determine which of the squabbling factions inherited the original identity and symbols of the organisation. In the manner of a man throwing up his arms in frustration, he had ruled that the chronic factional disputes within parties that he was called upon to decide would not arise if certain norms of internal democracy were followed.
Seshan specifically put all parties on notice, "especially those recognised (by the ECI) under the Symbols Order as National or State parties... that they should constitute their various governing bodies/committees and elect their office bearers at different levels in accordance with their own party constitutions within a reasonable time..." The alternative that Seshan held out was the prospect of derecognition for the party concerned.
Where Seshan had chosen to stay clear of actually pronouncing on the character of a party's constitution, Krishnamurthy plunged on. Apprised of the Shiv Sena's failure to conduct organisational elections in accordance with the 1994 directive, the ECI issued a notice asking it for certain clarifications. Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill evidently was under the impression that the matter was close to resolution. Obviously persuaded otherwise, Krishnamurthy chose to make the ECI's notice to the Sena the centrepiece of his press briefing on December 12, seeking without great subtlety to build up an atmosphere of enigma and mystery over the prospect of derecognition.
GILL, who was out of Delhi, was unamused at his colleague's activities in his absence. In a statement issued from Bhopal, he questioned the propriety of Krishnamurthy's press conference in general and his pronouncements on the Shiv Sena in particular. "I am surprised at the wide-ranging press conference held on behalf of the Commission without the other two members being aware of it," complained Gill. And as for the utterances on the Shiv Sena, he considered it "very odd that a quasi-judicial matter pending before the ECI should form a subject of such a press conference."
Cut to the quick, Krishnamurthy cancelled a trip to Bhubaneswar that he was scheduled to undertake as part of election preparations. He then went into a sulk only punctuated by resolute refusals to comment any further to the press. Two days later, he shot off an angry letter to the President, accusing Gill of bias towards the Shiv Sena and stating his own intention to proceed on leave for nine days. It was a far cry from the bonhomie of the Election Commissioners' meeting with the President just four days earlier.
Krishnamurthy's decision to obtain sanction for his leave from the President was undoubtedly a procedural innovation and a new construction of the constitutional responsibilities of the head of state. But President K.R. Narayanan was sufficiently perturbed by the brawl between two senior constitutional functionaries to ask them in for urgent and separate consultations on the evening of December 16. As he emerged from his conclave at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Krishnamurthy wore the look of a man who had been placated, though for the media he kept up the consistent refrain of "no comment". Perhaps seeking to set an example of restraint before the media, Gill chose not to utter even the standard trisyllabic disclaimer.
The President's intervention did not come a day too soon since Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had already pushed up his confrontation with the ECI one notch. In an initial rejection of the ECI's notice on inner-party elections, Thackeray questioned the right of any authority to act as the ombudsman of a party's rules of association. Intemperate choice of words apart, Thackeray for once seemed to have a case that would stand scrutiny against normally accepted standards of the rule of law, though not perhaps a deeper reading of these principles (see box story, "Dissent and democracy", on Page 16).
A FEW days later, the Shiv Sena held a conclave of its 15 top functionaries to anoint Bal Thackeray president for life. Thackeray himself, recuperating after minor surgery, was not a participant in the exercise. But the individuals who gathered to anoint him made it clear that they were doing so in response to the ECI's notice. The mock bow to propriety having been made, Thackeray fired off another broadside against the ECI, accusing Krishnamurthy in particular of blind prejudice against the Sena and ruling out any possibility of the party appearing before a panel on which he sat. The spat within the ECI, though hastily patched up at the intervention of the head of state, had taken its toll.
An element of irony was added to proceedings by the likelihood of T.N. Seshan contesting the Lok Sabha polls as a candidate sponsored by the Shiv Sena. After having come a cropper in his quest to become head of state, Seshan has evidently been at a loose end. And having backed him for the top job in the republic, the Sena may perhaps have few qualms about his suitability to be a Member of Parliament. The difficulty would arise from the need to accommodate rival claimants within the Sena, but as a virtual dictator within the party, Thackeray could launch Seshan into a political orbit if he so chose.
Gill permitted himself a rare moment of humour during his squabble with Krishnamurthy when he welcomed the prospect of Seshan's entry into politics and wished that his "distinguished predecessor" would appear before him to argue the case for the Shiv Sena. The humour aside, Seshan's ambitions raise questions about the politicisation of the office of the CEC - questions that were never far from the surface during his tenure in office. His likely entry into the Shiv Sena and the attendant questions of propriety were also probably a sub-text in the recent spat within the ECI.
THE distractions occasioned by the Shiv Sena affair are likely to subside soon. They will in all probability only be a minor interruption in a rather efficient and business-like routine of preparations for the twelfth general elections. The ECI began with an announcement that irrespective of the actual schedule of elections, the notification would be advanced to a suitable early date so that the model code of conduct for political parties and individual candidates would come into force, allowing minimum latitude to capitalise on the advantages of incumbency. Orders were issued restraining State governments from transferring district-level officials who would be required for field responsibilities connected to the elections.
The ECI also directed the Government to issue an ordinance raising the limit on campaign expenses from the rather outdated figure of Rs.4.5 lakhs to Rs.15 lakhs. It added the important proviso that this revised ceiling would cover the entire expenditure incurred by a candidate and on his behalf. This offered the assurance that a glaring loophole in election law is finally being addressed.
To widen the choice of personnel available to the ECI, the Government has also been directed to permit employees of public sector undertakings to function as polling officials. The authorities were also directed to impose an immediate moratorium on permits and licences for fire-arms.
In all these respects, the ECI has shown a healthy sense of initiative, stripped of the flamboyant exhibitionism of the Seshan years. Whereas the ECI in earlier years was prepared to function within the framework of law provided by the government, confining its proposals to the realm of rarefied discourse, the body today has the authority to direct certain changes in the overarching context of rules. In part these changes have been forced by the change in circumstances - from being occasions to endorse the "plebiscitary dictatorship" of the Congress, general elections today call forth fierce political contestation. It helps in the context to know that there is a fair and neutral arbiter overseeing the process, though perhaps a referee that is not internally torn by rival perceptions of its proper role would carry a greater sense of reassurance.
BY their sheer scale and exuberance, elections in India have never ceased to fascinate. Even in the days of single-party dominance, elections were often an occasion for a public display of adulation and loyalty that seemed to deepen the voter's sense of commitment to the system of adult franchise. That celebratory attitude towards the basic practice of democracy has survived into these more fractious times.
Elections were at one time an occasion to submerge group interests in a statement of allegiance towards a supreme national leader. That age of personal charisma has now passed. The milieu has become more fragmented with the electoral process being transformed into an arena for the assertion of a bewildering variety of group identities. Right now, political pundits are equally divided between those who see this as a profound crisis for Indian democracy and those who see it as part of the regeneration. When the outcome of Elections 1998 are in, there should be further definitive indication of which way the polity is moving.