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Looking back

Published : Feb 26, 2010 00:00 IST

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Electronic voting machines being taken on horseback to Killomkota, some 150 km from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, in April 2009.-K.R. DEEPAK

Electronic voting machines being taken on horseback to Killomkota, some 150 km from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, in April 2009.-K.R. DEEPAK

TO commemorate the 60th anniversary of its existence, the Election Commission on January 25 released a publication, Lok Sabha Election 2009 Reinforcing Indian Democracy. A comparison of this publication with the narrative reports that the E.C. brought out after every general election from 1952 to 1980 shows how the Commissions understanding of its role has changed over the years.

The E.C. discontinued the practice of publishing narrative reports after the 1980 general election. It submitted four annual reports to Parliament after 1983 in lieu of the narrative reports, but after 1987 even that practice was discontinued. It revived the practice to some extent when M.S. Gill, as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), came out with Elections in India: Major Events and New Initiatives, 1996-2000. This volume and the one released on January 25 consider the E.Cs role as one of managing elections. The E.C. sees the peaceful conduct of general election to be in itself an achievement of sorts.

The reports up to 1980 were introspective, an attribute that is conspicuous by its absence in later reports. Through its narrative reports, the E.C. maintained a tradition of analysing and commenting on the background and outcome of every round of general election and gave elaborate explanations for its decisions. This conveyed its concern for accountability and respect for public opinion.

The non-narrative reports, brought out after 1980, merely compiled statistics, and sought to divorce the E.C. from the political context in which it functions. A student of history will find nothing in the reports of the 1990s and beyond about how decisions had been made and conflicts resolved within the multi-member Commission.

There are many questions and issues that the E.C. alone can explain and enrich public discussion on them. The early CECs understood this role better and used narrative reports for that purpose.

Contrary to the popular impression that the E.C. became proactive only after T.N. Seshan became the CEC in 1990, these reports suggest that his predecessors, too, were conscious of the independence of the E.C. from the government. During its initial years, the E.C. was also vested with the power to appoint election tribunals to decide on doubts and disputes arising out of elections. This power was later transferred to the High Courts.

Sukumar Sen, the first CEC, noted in the report on the first general election: The E.C. has to function in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and of the statute law relating to elections. In matters not covered by these, it has unfettered discretion to take its own decisions and to issue all necessary directions.

Of particular interest is the E.Cs elaborate justification for introducing universal adult suffrage in 1952. This was in accordance with Article 326 of the Constitution. The E.C. noted the arguments against adult suffrage and agreed that it had led to formidable administrative difficulties. But it also underlined that the adoption of the principle of adult suffrage by the Constituent Assembly was an act of faith faith in the common man and in his practical common sense. The report traced the roots of adult suffrage to practices in ancient India.

The E.C., however, added a caveat: In order to ensure that the system of adult suffrage worked fairly and smoothly, two other conditions must be satisfied, namely (1) the conduct of elections must be strictly non-partisan or under neutral control, and (2) the executive government must sincerely desire free and fair elections and actively work for the same. The E.Cs current strict enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates, which restrains parties in power from influencing voters on the eve of elections, stems from this early understanding.

The E.C. returned to the subject of adult franchise in its report on the fifth general election (1971-72) by devoting a full chapter to its implications for economic freedom. It concluded that the general election to the Lok Sabha in 1971 and to the various Assemblies in 1972 had shown that the people of this country had awoken from their deep slumber after about a quarter of a century since Independence and that they had started to assert their valued rights to attain the objective of ameliorating their economic conditions.

If adult suffrage fails, violence is sure to come and no one will be able to stop it. And if and when that dire and terrible event comes, no fantastic and mischievous theory of rigging elections will be of any avail to anybody, the E.C. warned political parties, nudging them to fulfil their promises to voters if voted to power.

The report on the second general election (brought out in 1958) reveals that the E.C. had considered an interesting suggestion to check impersonation. Instead of marking the left forefinger of a voter with indelible ink, it considered compulsory vaccination or re-vaccination of the voter for small pox before he or she received that ballot paper. A vaccination mark would remain fresh and prominent for well over a week and a voter would not be able to impersonate another voter during that period.

The E.C. had no doubt about this methods effectiveness but believed that it could be adopted only with strong public support. Political parties would have to be consulted and their substantial concurrence obtained, too, it pointed out. It called upon the government, political parties and the general public to consider this method as it would be useful and also desirable from the point of view of public health. However, the report is silent on the response of the people and political parties. In the first and second general elections, the symbol system of voting was used. Here, the voter dropped the ballot paper into the box bearing the symbol of his or her choice, rather than mark his or her preference on the ballot paper.

In November 1956, the E.C. discussed with national political parties whether a marking system could replace the symbol system. Except for the Praja Socialist Party, the three other parties the Indian National Congress, the Jana Sangh and the Communist Party of India did not favour its immediate adoption in the second general election of 1957. However, the E.C. adopted the marking system successfully in the 26 byelections held after that and in the third general election.

The E.C. did not try a similar consensual method to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs). It used them in a byelection in 1981, the result of which was later struck down by the Supreme Court. The E.C. then introduced EVMs in a limited way in the 1998 Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. In June 1999, the entire Assembly elections in Goa were conducted with EVMs. Encouraged by these results, the E.C. began to make use of EVMs gradually in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

M.S. Gill recalls in the 2000 report that the E.C. stood firm on the use of EVMs when some political leaders expressed reservations about them. On this, the E.C. was, of course, emboldened by the amendment carried out by Parliament in 1989 to the Representation of the People Act, 1951, to facilitate the use of EVMs.

Since 2004, the E.C. has conducted the elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies only through EVMs. This was after securing judicial verdicts in its favour, following challenges to their use from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu and the Punjab unit of the Congress.

The process of seeking and evolving a consensus was easier during the early years of the E.C. The exercise is now complicated with the emergence of many political parties and their varied perceptions on what reform would mean in terms of electoral benefits.

Today, the Model Code of Conduct is considered the basis for evaluating the conduct of political parties and candidates in the run-up to elections. The code was evolved in 1972, on the eve of Assembly elections, by the then CEC S.P. Sen-Varma after discussions with political parties.

The E.Cs first annual report in 1983 reveals that the first endeavour to frame a model code of conduct was taken up in 1960 in Kerala before the Assembly elections after the States political parties approved it. The E.C. circulated this code to all recognised political parties and the State governments on the eve of the 1962 general election. By and large, it was followed in that election. In 1967, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal accepted the Kerala code.

In his report on the midterm Assembly elections of 1968-69, S.P. Sen-Varma expressed his satisfaction that political parties and candidates by and large kept their promise to observe the code, and this resulted in peaceful elections. Amplified from time to time, todays Model Code of Conduct was finalised in 1991 by T.N. Seshan.

In his 1968 report, S.P. Sen-Varma claimed that the 1967 general election proved that the Indian voter was gaining maturity for the first time. The voter could no longer be taken for granted by any political party, however well established or well entrenched it was. Drawing from personal experience of interactions with voters in rural areas in disguise, he suggested that the voters were sensitive, would not brook indifference or maltreatment, and had a sense of self-respect. The sharp fall in the percentage of rejected votes also convinced S.P. Sen-Varma about the voters growing maturity.

The midterm elections to the State Assemblies in 1968-69 led to the E.Cs concern about instability in the States owing to defections. No single party had got absolute majority after the previous round of elections. The experience led the E.C. to conclude that coalition governments could not, by their very nature, always be stable and could not pursue any progressive policy with firmness.

The 1969 split in the Indian National Congress reduced the parliamentary party of the Indira Gandhi faction, known as the Congress (R), to a minority in the Lok Sabha, which consisted of about 520 members then. The strength of Congress (R) was a little less than 225. The Indira Gandhi government thus depended on the support of other parties and groups for survival in office.

In its report on the fifth general election in 1971-72 (Narrative Reflective Part), the E.C. defended the Congress (R) governments decision to dissolve the Lok Sabha. It also offered an elaborate justification for the Presidents powers to dissolve the Lok Sabha, on the advice of the Council of Ministers, before the completion of its tenure of five years.

Citing the constitutional provisions of Canada, Australia, and Britain, the E.C. concluded that any intelligent government would not desist from advising the head of state to dissolve Parliament if it felt that the time was favourable for obtaining a peoples verdict for its party.

In his preface to the E.Cs report on the general election of 1977, T. Swaminathan, the CEC, said that the Commission should not be concerned with the result of any election, while acknowledging the historic assumption of office by a non-Congress government for the first time.

However, Swaminathans successor, S.L. Shakdher, did not feel inhibited to offer his analysis of the general election of 1980: The Janata Party government should have had no difficulty in completing its tenure of five years. Events, however, began to move in swift succession from which it was apparent that the constituents of the Janata Party could not forget their past affiliations and could not work as a single party. The life of the Lok Sabha was brought to an end within two-and-a-half years from the date of its constitution because of the instability of the two governments.

He lamented that the E.Cs recommendations for electoral reform were not examined by the Janata Party government although its manifesto had promised electoral reform as one of the main agendas. Had these proposals been enacted, it would have further strengthened the hands of the Commission in pushing forward the process of free and fair election, he wrote.

The tone and tenor of the E.Cs early narrative reports may be debatable, but they do suggest that vote in a democracy is not merely mechanical. It is an expression of opinion, right or wrong, wise or foolish, on the basis of free public discussions between those with opposing views and opinions.

In his report, S.P. Sen-Varma cites the French publicist Alexis de Tocqueville as having said that the actual voting in a democracy is clearly less important than the discussion which precedes the vote; for this discussion defines policy, illuminates the situation and the forces available for dealing with it, and tends to make all citizens more willing to live in peace with those who disagree with them.

The expansion of the E.C. as a three-member body in the 1990s has given it an opportunity to take decisions in a more democratic manner than what would have been possible under a single member. But democratic functioning of the Commission has not kept pace with the increasing expectation of transparency within it.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 26, 2010.)

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