After overseeing 15 general elections to the Lok Sabha, the Election Commission of India, in its diamond jubilee year, can with justifiable pride claim to have nursed and strengthened the electoral processes of a nascent democracy. The successes have not been consistent or uniform, but over the last six decades the ECI managed to make the world’s largest democratic process freer and fairer. One of the instruments of this success is surely the Model Code of Conduct. Designed to offer a level playing field to all political parties, it has been used to neutralise many of the inherent advantages of a ruling party in an election. Although the model code was originally based on political consensus and does not still enjoy statutory sanction, it served as a handy tool for placing curbs on the abuse of the official machinery for campaigning. While there have been complaints of excess in the sometimes mindless application of the model code, the benefits have generally outweighed the costs. Under overreaching Chief Election Commissioners such as T.N. Seshan (1990-96), the ECI did seek to extend its jurisdiction beyond constitutionally acceptable levels, but such attempts have been short-lived. After the Election Commission was made a three-member body, its functioning became more institutionalised and more transparent with little room for the caprices of an overbearing personality.
The diamond jubilee is also an occasion for the ECI to look at the challenges ahead, especially those relating to criminalisation of politics and use of money power in elections. Neither of these issues is new. What is clear is that the efforts of the Commission to tackle them have generally lacked conviction and have not yielded any significant results. Although the political system and players must take a major share of the blame, and the ECI’s powers are constitutionally circumscribed, these will have to be noted as failures. The dominant role of money in elections, which is taking newer and more outrageous forms, is deeply worrying. Instances of politicians paying for news coverage and bribing voters were widespread in the 2009-2010 elections. Another pressing issue relates to the powers of the Chief Election Commissioner vis-À-vis the two Election Commissioners. CEC Navin Chawla has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking that the Constitution be amended to equalise the removal process for the CEC and ECs. Against the background of the unseemly controversy over the previous CEC’s attempt to have his colleague removed on baseless and subjective grounds, an amendment that makes it explicit that the ECs too can be removed only through impeachment is an institutional imperative.